I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of
The motion is about transparency, accountability and ensuring that Parliament can do its job of scrutinising the Government properly. It is a shame that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is not here, but, assuming that he is on negotiating duties, I will not make a cheap point about that. [Interruption.] In a private conversation with him, I said that I would make that point clear at the beginning of my speech if he was not here, so it was not a cheap point.
It goes without saying that there is huge anxiety and uncertainty in the country about the impact of the Government’s Brexit approach. That is felt by businesses across the country, communities large and small, and all sectors of the economy. That is perhaps inevitable, given the size of the task ahead. The Government say that they are planning for all eventualities, but if relevant information and evidence is not published in a responsible fashion, businesses and people up and down the country will be unable to do so.
Looking at the list, a copy of which I have here, two things are obvious. First, in many ways it is unremarkable, and so it could and should have been published months ago. Secondly, the wide range of sectors analysed demonstrates why it is so important for Members to see the impact assessments.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the Labour party, in the many months of Brexit discussions, has found not a single way to strengthen the UK’s bargaining position or expedite the Brexit that their voters voted for?
Over the summer, I set out the Opposition’s position in relation to Brexit with great clarity, and Government Members, if they are talking to businesses, will know how warmly that has been received. That has been documented in what businesses have said and done.
This has been absolutely clear from the summer. It was set out by me, and it was repeated by me in this House and in my conference speech and by my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn in his conference speech. It is that we should seek transitional measures, because we are not going to have reached the final deal by March 2019 and that those transitional measures should be on the same basic terms as now. That means being in the single market, in a customs union, abiding by the rules and accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, exactly as I have set out many times, and there has been unity on this side about that transitional position.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the comments from Government Members are absurd given that the Prime Minister says one thing about no deal, the Brexit Secretary says no deal is a threat and the Home Secretary says no deal is unthinkable? The issue of transparency is crucial because we are talking about 29 million workers here—88% of the economy—and we do not know what those studies say; they should be published.
I am grateful for that intervention. I was going to highlight just three sectors on the list: construction and engineering, where 2.9 million jobs are involved; medical services and social care, where 3 million jobs are involved; and pharmaceuticals, where 50,000 jobs are involved. So even taking just three of the 58 sectors, it is obvious why this is of such importance.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Opposition that these impact assessments should be disclosed—they can be redacted—but we definitely disagree about the Labour party’s position. We must be very clear: it started off with the Leader of the Opposition saying article 50 should be triggered on the day after the referendum, and it has flip-flopped around since. I am delighted that the Labour party has now come across to my way of thinking: we should have a transition period, retaining our membership of the single market and the customs union. I hope that Labour will go further and say we need a final deal that includes the single market and customs union.
I hope to see the right hon. Lady in the Lobby with us later if that is how she feels about this motion.
I must say that there were at least five different versions of the Government position over the summer, and it is almost impossible to reconcile the Foreign Secretary’s approach with that of others in the Cabinet. Everybody knows it and is commenting on it. To claim there is unity in the Cabinet is a pretence.
I welcome the transparency the right hon. and learned Gentleman has provided on the transition period, but what is Labour’s policy for after that period?
I have been very clear about that as well and about what the priorities are—jobs and the economy—and that we should retain the benefits of the single market and customs union.
I will come to that, because we gave some thought to the process, and if the principle of disclosure is agreed, we are open to a discussion about exactly how that works. The Brexit Select Committee seemed the obvious Committee, but there is clearly interest in other Select Committees in the subject matter, not least medical services and social care, which I know will be of great interest to the hon. Lady.
I am going to press on, because I have barely got a sentence in. I will give way later but I am really not making much progress at all.
The list of sectors was initially not disclosed, but it was then disclosed on Monday. In her freedom of information request of
The second of those grounds is surprising, coming from the current Secretary of State. Back in December 1999, he was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee when the freedom of information legislation was before Parliament. Then, when he was on the Back Benches, he intervened strongly in the debates. He said:
“I do not approach the issue from the perspective of a freedom of information enthusiast…my test is whether it makes democracy and government work better.”
He then said:
“The class exemption applying to all information relating to formulation and development of Government policy, including factual information, is a ludicrous blanket exemption.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 340, c. 774.]
Today, from the Front Bench, he relies on that ludicrous blanket exemption that he rallied against from the Back Benches.
I shall now turn to the analyses and reports themselves. In a joint letter dated
The House will recall that when we, the Opposition, were calling for the Government to publish a Brexit plan this time last year, our request was initially refused. It was claimed that—guess what?—to do so would undermine our negotiating position. Thus, in an exchange on
“It is no good creating a public negotiating position, which has the simple effect of destroying our ability to negotiate—full stop.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 616, c. 1264.]
The Prime minister then coined the phrase “no running commentary” and stuck to it like glue. And so it went on until
On the claim that any disclosure will undermine our negotiating position, I also bear in mind what the Secretary of State said to the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee last night when he was pressed on this. He said:
“I don’t think you should overestimate what’s in them. They’re not economic models of each sector, they are looking at how much of it depends on European Union markets versus other markets, what other opportunities may be, what the regulatory structures are, all those sorts of things that inform the negotiation, but they are not predictions. So I wouldn’t overestimate what they are.”
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that we might ask how the Ministers even know whether the reports will undermine our negotiating position given that they told the Exiting the European Union Committee that they had not even read them? One does wonder why on earth they are now going to such lengths to protect them.
I am grateful for that intervention and will come to that very point. Playing down the significance of the reports last night, while playing up the need to keep them absolutely secret is an interesting strategy that needs to be tested. The Government’s claim about not disclosing the reports or any part of them also raises some pretty fundamental questions. First, who has actually read the 58 reports? On
“They will have seen summary outcomes. That is all.”
The impact assessments that we are debating this afternoon have not been read in full by the Cabinet.
My right hon. and learned Friend may also be interested to know that when the Health Committee asked the Health Secretary yesterday whether he had read the four reports of great relevance to the NHS and public health, he seemed rather unsure. Given the huge negative impact that Brexit will have, particularly on our NHS workforce, is it not extraordinary that the Health Secretary cannot remember if he has even read the reports?
If the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was right in his evidence to the Brexit Select Committee, it appears that the Health Secretary has not read the reports because he has not had them.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was asked by the Brexit Select Committee whether the reports had been passed to the Scottish Government. In reply to a question from the SNP spokesperson, the Secretary of State said that he did not know whether they had been shared with the Scottish Government. These reports, which are in lockdown and cannot be seen and not a word of which can be disclosed, have not been read by the Cabinet, and nobody knows whether they have been disclosed to the Scottish Government, yet nothing can be made available to this House.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a hint of almost religious fervour here? If we keep our eyes closed and our ears blocked, perhaps everything will be okay as we leap off the cliff into the unknown.
For clarification, it was me who asked the Secretary of State whether he would share the impact assessment on the Scottish economy with the Scottish Government. After I corrected him that it has in fact not been shared, he went on to give an undertaking that it will be shared with the Scottish Government. If that particular assessment will be shared, should not the other assessments be shared with the other relevant sectors?
The hon. and learned Lady makes a good point. If some of these reports can or have been shared with some Governments or Administrations, there is simply no basis for arguing that they cannot be shared with this Parliament, through the Select Committees.
I recently asked the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport what sector assessments her Department was involved in, and she answered, “None.” However, I count at least 10 areas in which her Department is involved—or perhaps it is not involved. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that prompts questions about how the Government are co-ordinating the production of the reports?
I can see that if I keep giving way, I will get answers that relate to every Department and find out that in fact none of them has seen, analysed, read or considered the impact assessments.
I am going to try to make some progress.
The Secretary of State made it clear that the Cabinet had only seen the summary outcomes. If that position has changed, I am sure that the Minister will intervene to clarify the position. If the assessments are so important, the relevant Cabinet members ought to read about the sectors that concern them. It is extraordinary that that has not happened. It is also extraordinary because it raises the question of who is making the decision that these reports cannot be disclosed. Who is making that decision? It cannot be the relevant Cabinet members, because they have not read the reports. When he appeared before the Brexit Select Committee, the Secretary of State was pretty hazy about that:
“The Government do. To a very large extent it comes to me, but it would depend on which department it is”.
That is interesting, given that the other Departments have not read the reports. He continued:
“Some of the stuff is also held in other departments.”
Who is the decision maker on the non-disclosure of these reports? Is it the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union? If not, who is it? [Interruption.] I see that instructions may be being taken.
Is there a record of the decision being made? It is a significant decision to withhold information from Parliament. Is a record made of the decision for each report? Where is that record? What criteria are actually applied?
A number of Members, including me, have experience of handling sensitive information—in my case, very sensitive information about very serious criminal offences—and everyone who has been in that position knows that a blanket ban can be justified only if no lesser form of publication is possible. Blanket bans are very rare. Even in the field of counter-terrorism, where there is highly sensitive material, blanket bans are very rare and the Government will normally find a way of publishing some of the material in an acceptable form. The current situation is extremely unusual, even for sensitive material.
Has consideration been given to redacting some of the sensitive material? Has consideration been given to providing a summary to Parliament? That is not uncommon in sensitive criminal cases. Can the gist not be given, or are we seriously expected to believe that not one paragraph, not one sentence, not one word can be disclosed to anyone in this House?
I am listening carefully to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I can only conclude that it is foolish and irresponsible to have called this debate. He knows there is a blanket ban on disclosing advice to Ministers—that is in the ministerial code and the civil service code, and it is absolutely standard. It is normal for Select Committees to request information themselves, rather than to get the official Opposition to do it on their behalf. This is game playing.
The intervention of Mr Jenkin is typical of what has been going on for 16 or 17 months. Every time somebody raises a legitimate question, it is suggested that they are somehow frustrating or undermining the process. It is not unlike the interventions I took a year ago when I suggested that the plan should be published. The interventions were exactly the same.
This is lockdown, a blanket ban. If the exemption for ministerial advice is being relied on, it is curious that it is not mentioned as the ground being relied on in the letter in response to the freedom of information request. That is why we have brought this motion to the House—
I am going to press on.
You will have seen today’s Order Paper, Mr Deputy Speaker. Coming from someone who thinks that we should catapult Parliament into 21st century, the wording of our motion is a little odd. The motion borrows widely from parliamentary procedure used to require Ministers to lay before the House or a Committee a specific document. “Erskine May” says the following:
“Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion... the power to send for papers by means of a motion for unopposed return extends to papers which are in the possession of Ministers or which Ministers have the authority to obtain.”
That procedure has widely been used for many decades—the Opposition Whips tell me it has been used for many centuries. If anyone doubts the procedure, they should see on page 3 of today’s Order Paper that the Home Secretary has used the same procedure in relation to a different report.
What is important about this procedure is that we believe this is a binding motion, and that makes it—we hope—impossible for the Government to pull their usual Wednesday afternoon trick of not voting on Opposition day motions or not taking any notice of them. That is why we have chosen the procedure that we have. But let me be clear: our motion does not require blanket publication without further consideration. Instead, it would require that the documents covered in the list should be provided to the Brexit Select Committee—or other Select Committees if the Government’s concern is that that is too limited and these things ought to go to all the Select Committees. We are very open to that discussion, but these documents should go to the Brexit Select Committee. Then it would be for that Committee—or any other Select Committee—to decide which documents should and should not be published. It would also fall to that Committee to decide in what form publication should occur.
Members may ask why we have chosen the Brexit Select Committee. We have done so because it is a cross-party Committee; it has a lot of expertise and support staff; and it has a Government majority, so the Opposition cannot be accused of being party political here. It is a trusted and responsible Committee.
I will give way in a minute. As I have said, we are open to hearing from the Government if they have alternative mechanisms or procedures to allow publication in an appropriate fashion. We are not wedded to the form we have put forward. We are wedded to challenging the blanket approach that the Government have taken.
I am one Member of this House who welcomes the use of a 19th century procedure to hold the Government to account. I have one question for the right hon. and learned Gentleman: why is he asking for this information for the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union without a formal motion having been passed by that Committee to request these papers?
Because that is not necessary and this is an important motion, and because in recent weeks we have seen contempt for motions in this House—week after week on Opposition day motions—from a Government who are too weak to turn up or too weak to accept the outcome. Therefore we have chosen a procedure that is binding on this Government.
Only a weak Government push Parliament away and ignore the facts. It should not require an arcane parliamentary procedure to force the Government to release these documents, but after 10 months of trying that is what Parliament now has to do. The current impasse prevents Parliament doing its job, undermines accountability and is inconsistent with transparency. The Government should support the motion before the House today.
This is an important issue, and we have always taken incredibly seriously our commitment to transparency in the negotiations, but we also take incredibly seriously our commitment to the national interest and to the vote in this House last December which concluded that we should not publish anything that undermines it.
In a moment.
We have always tried to strike the right balance between those two commitments, and we intend to continue to do that in our response to the motion before us. I shall start by taking each part of the motion in turn.
Let me at least respond to the motion; I will then give way to the hon. Lady.
The first part of the motion calls for Ministers to publish the list of sectors that have been analysed. As the shadow Secretary of State, Keir Starmer, acknowledged, that has already been done—it was done before the motion was tabled.
I do acknowledge that. To explain, we were advised by the parliamentary authorities that that needed to be included in the motion in order for the second part to be triggered. I acknowledge, though, that that list was published on Monday.
I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s acknowledgement. As he says, that list was published in response to the Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee report on Brexit and the trade in goods. A copy was placed in the Libraries of both Houses and is available for all to see.
In a moment.
As set out in the document we published, we estimate that the 58 sectors covered account for around 88% of the UK economy, so they provide a comprehensive framework from which to analyse the entire economy. We believe that that approach to structuring our analysis has helped us to cover all relevant parts of the economy. Given that that list has been published, we feel that the first part of the motion has been addressed. The second part of the motion calls for the impact assessments arising from the sectoral analyses to be provided to the Exiting the European Union Committee.
Will the Minister confirm that the list of sectors was not published directly to the House in a ministerial statement, despite more than 120 MPs calling for its publication? Will he also confirm that Parliament’s votes in October and December last year, to which he referred, were on Opposition-day motions?
Before I bring the Minister back in, I just want to let those Members who wish to speak know that there will be a five-minute limit after the Front-Bench speakers.
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady what I have already said about the form of the document’s publication. Yes, it was an Opposition-day motion, but interestingly it was a Government amendment on an Opposition day which the Opposition accepted and which was supported by both sides of the House. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras has repeated his acknowledgement of that principle today.
I wish to take a moment to highlight several conflicting responsibilities for Ministers with respect to the request that impact assessments be published.
Is it the Minister’s understanding from what Keir Starmer said from the Front Bench that not only did he not bother to consult the Select Committee members before he made his proposal, but that he does not appear to have consulted the Chairman of that Committee, Hilary Benn, yet he has drawn up this wheeze as a way of trying to get these documents out anyway?
I am not going to speak for the Opposition Front-Bench team, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns seriously, because what is being proposed needs to be checked against a number of significant issues relating to the national interest and, indeed, the responsibilities of Ministers and the Crown in respect of the information that we hold.
If I may, I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.
The Government recognise that Parliament does have rights relating to the publication of documents, which is one of the reasons why we have always been as open as possible with Parliament. In this case, though, the Opposition have taken an approach based on an obscure parliamentary rule that has not been in general use for these purposes since the 19th century. When it has been used, it has been mostly to ensure the publication of information that is now provided to Parliament by the Government regularly and as a matter of course.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and persuasive argument. I notice a flurry of activity on the Labour Benches while the Chairman of the Select Committee, Hilary Benn, is asked to confirm his interest in this matter. Does my hon. Friend agree that the right process has not been followed? The right process would be for the Select Committee to discuss this, make the request and then come to this House to ask for the information. The Opposition should not try to short-circuit it. What they are doing is a misuse of the House’s processes.
My hon. Friend makes his point powerfully. I am sure we will hear from the Chairman of the Select Committee in due course.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras knows, Ministers have a clear obligation not to disclose information when to do so would not be in the public interest. In this case, the public interest is also the national interest. The key national interest here is to ensure the best possible outcome from our negotiations with the European Union. As he accepted earlier, putting all the information in the public domain could undermine our negotiating position. Furthermore, we must consider the importance of Ministers receiving unvarnished advice without the risks of it being published. That is particularly relevant in this case given that much of the development of this analysis has helped to inform advice to Ministers regarding our exit from the European Union. If the motion were to pass, we would need to reflect on these various constraints and conflicting responsibilities when it comes to passing information to the Exiting the European Union Committee.
I take note of the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made about looking at redaction or summary as an approach. Given the generosity of his approach in that regard, we will not be opposing the motion today. However, I do say that we need to look at the content of the analysis. As he quoted the Secretary of State’s comments before the Lords EU Committee yesterday, I point out that there has been some misunderstanding about what this sectoral analysis actually is. It is not a series of 58 economic impact assessments.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that he and his Government have a responsibility to tell the people of this country who voted either leave or remain what the real impact will be? If he does not, will they not turn on the people who hid the information from them? Will he stop governing in secret, and make sure that the people who are running this country and the people who voted have all of the information and the truth?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have always been clear that we have a responsibility to people on all sides of the referendum debate to deliver a successful outcome to our negotiations. However, delivering a successful outcome to our negotiations for the whole country does require keeping some information confidential for the purposes of negotiation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while Keir Starmer is self-evidently an expert lawyer, he is quite clearly a very lacking negotiator? Putting this level of information potentially into the hands of the people with whom we are negotiating could very seriously undermine our ability to do the right thing for the British people.
My hon. Friend makes a key point. It is very important that, as we approach these negotiations, we do so with a firm view of the national interest in mind.
The Government always pay careful attention to the views of this House. As I have already pointed out, we have done so in the past and we will respond appropriately. To return to the analysis—[Interruption.] This is an important point. We have been looking at 58 sectors, as well as cross-cutting regulatory, economic and social issues to inform our negotiating position.
It is not my job to interpret the procedures of the House; that is a matter for the House itself. As I have said, we will take note of whatever the House decides on this matter.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The immediate answer is, no, it would not be possible at this moment to have a ruling from the Chair. The fact is that the Minister has answered the question. I appreciate that he does not like the Minister’s answer. Anna Soubry asked a straight question, and the Minister gave a straight answer. It is not for the Chair to decide how the Minister should answer the question.
Order. There was nothing further to that point of order, because I have answered the point of order. If the right hon. Lady has a different point of order, I will hear it.
The right hon. Lady knows that the Chair will not become involved in an argument between one Front Bench and the other, or one side of the House and the other. The Minister has—[Interruption.] Order! Do not shout when I am speaking from the Chair. The Minister has the floor and he has heard the points that are being made. It is for the Minister to answer those points.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. What advice might you be able to get from the Clerk of the House, perhaps during the course of this debate, on whether the motion is binding? It is important for the House to know that information. I appreciate that you might not be able to rule on it at this moment, but I would also appreciate it if we could get that advice in due course.
The House was quite keen to hear out some of this analysis, so I thought it would be helpful if I set out some of the details of what it is and what it is not. I have explained that the analysis is not a series of 58 economic impact assessments. It is a cross-sectoral analysis. It is not just work undertaken by our Department, as it draws on analysis and expertise across the whole of Government. But it is not the case—and I do not believe that this Department or any of its Ministers has ever said that it is—that there are 58 economic impact assessments that neatly summarise what all the eventualities could mean for each sector.
We can discuss all sorts of processes and whether they will undermine negotiations, but will the Minister agree that withholding this information is now becoming counterproductive? It looks like the Government are hiding bad news.
The Government will always take a careful view, and I will come to that later. We have disclosed plenty of information during this process. Where we see that it is in the national interest to do so, of course we will.
The analysis ranges from high-level, overarching analysis to much more granular-level analysis of certain product lines in specific sectors. It examines how trade is currently conducted with the EU in those sectors, and in many cases considers alternatives after we leave, as well as looking at existing precedents. The analysis is constantly evolving—as we discussed in the Select Committee just the other day—and being updated based on our discussions with industry and our negotiations with the European Union.
I do not think that I have personally ever made that contention. We need to ensure that businesses have the best outcome from this whole process. With that in mind, it is important to note that this analysis is closely tied to our negotiating position. There is therefore a significant chance that it would be detrimental to our interests in negotiation to publish all the analysis in full, as the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras acknowledged.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I notice that a right hon. Gentleman is reading all your documents over your shoulder. Is it in order for somebody to read the advice that you are getting? He is doing it right now. I think that is rather out of order.
I am extremely grateful for the protection of Mr Duncan Smith. It is quite in order and normal for a Member to approach the Chair. It is not normal for anyone to read my papers while I am on my feet.
In a moment.
To continue informing our approach, we are conducting a comprehensive programme of engagement with businesses and third-party organisations. We are working proactively with industry and other Departments to have the best information available to negotiate from the best possible position.
We held events at Chevening House in July and September. A cross-Government business advisory group consisting of the five main business representative organisations has been established to ensure business is not only heard, but is influential throughout the process. I was with the group earlier this week. The Prime Minister chairs a quarterly business advisory council to hear directly from senior business leaders on key issues across EU exit and the wider economy. Department for Exiting the European Union Ministers alone have undertaken a wide-ranging programme of stakeholder engagement.
The House will be aware that the motion before us is a Humble Address to be presented to Her Majesty. That is the motion before the House. We are currently debating that motion and it is absolutely correct that there should be differences of opinion about the effect of the motion, the way in which it should be debated and what should happen to it. At this stage, I would say only that a motion of this kind has in the past been seen as effective or binding. That does not mean that I am making a ruling at this point about the nature of the motion before us today.
I will reiterate what I said before. While it is correct for the Chair to make a ruling on what happens here in the Chamber, it is for the Government to decide how they will proceed, having considered the opinions of the House. It would, of course, be quite wrong for the Government not to pay any attention to a decision taken by the House, but the way in which the Minister interprets what he and his colleagues should do after the House has expressed an opinion is a matter not for the Chair but for the Minister.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wondered if it might be helpful to refer hon. Members to page 819 of “Erskine May”, which points out that in a recent case the Canadian House of Commons, in not entirely dissimilar circumstances, viewed it as a breach of privilege for the Government to fail to provide information when asked for it by the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for directing me to page 819 of “Erskine May”, which I will look at as soon as I have an opportunity so to do, but he will be aware of the rules on privilege, as I am, and the way in which those rules can be interpreted. Like him, not long ago I served for many weeks on a Committee considering the way in which privilege can be applied. If I were to say that it is a grey area, that would not be an exaggeration. There is no black and white in the way in which privilege is applied. But I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing to my attention to that particular point in “Erskine May”.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. “Erskine May” is written in black and white. It makes it absolutely clear, as Mr Rees-Mogg mentioned—I am partially giving you time to read page 819 in case you need to, Madam Deputy Speaker—that if the House chose to, it could refer each and every individual Minister who chose to ignore the decision of the House to the Committee on Privileges, and they could then be suspended from membership of the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me time. I must say it would not matter whether “Erskine May” was written in black and white, or green and yellow, or purple and orange. The fact is that the rules on privilege are not a matter that can be decided immediately without consideration of all of the circumstances. I am not going to make a ruling here and now about the way in which the Minister and his colleagues should interpret what is happening in the House today.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. “Erskine May” is quite clear. The reference to the Canadian position was in the event that the Government chose to ignore what the House had said and called for. The Government have made it clear already, in the Minister’s opening remarks, that they have not chosen to ignore this particular outcome, whatever that outcome is. That is clear. The word “ignore” is very clear. It means to disregard and to refuse to reflect on. The Government have made it clear that they will not ignore it and therefore this tautological debate should now end.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his point of order. The difference of opinion between him, Chris Bryant and Anna Soubry, whom I can hear making further points on my right, simply proves the point that I have made to the House, which is that privilege is not a black and white matter. Privilege and the way in which it is interpreted is a matter that takes some consideration, and I reiterate that I will not make any ruling from the Chair which has an effect right now on this Minister in this Chamber. But I am now making a ruling that this is a short debate, that there are many matters to be discussed, and that I have a long list of names of people who wish to participate in this debate, and I will take no further tautological points of order. I want to hear what the Minister has to say, and I suspect that everyone else wants to hear what the Minister has to say.
DExEU Ministers have been engaging with businesses up and down the country. That includes attendance at 50 roundtables and over 250 bilateral meetings, as well as many more with other Departments. Those interactions help to inform and supplement our analysis.
The Minister has confirmed in the debate that a report has been prepared on the impact on the Scottish economy. Has a similar report been prepared on the impact on the Welsh economy? If so, has it been shared with Welsh Ministers? If a report has not been prepared, why is there not such a Welsh report?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments I made earlier about the nature of those reports. I did not say that there were reports on the Scottish or Welsh economies; I said that there were cross-cutting reports, based on sectors across the whole of the UK. But, of course, there is, within the Joint Ministerial Committee process, the opportunity to discuss with the Government the analysis we are conducting, and we want to make sure that that can move forward.
If the hon. Lady will allow me to finish the point on business engagement, I will be happy to give way, as I promised to do.
These interactions with business in every part of the country help to inform and supplement our analysis. It is an important point, which should not be glossed over lightly, that much of the information that businesses share with the Government on these issues is highly commercially sensitive. They have a right and an expectation that that information will be treated in the utmost confidence, and in none of our meetings and engagements was it suggested that the information provided by businesses could be published as part of a Government analysis.
The Minister must accept that the impact of Brexit will not be uniform across the country, which is why the Chancellor acknowledged that the Government have not only carried out sectoral impact assessments but looked at regions. Will the Minister explain what information the Government will release about the impact on different regions of the UK, so that we can not only understand the impact of Brexit but prepare for it?
Order. In addition to not having lots of tautological points of order, we will also not have any more extremely long interventions. Short interventions are—[Interruption.] We will not have any more extremely long interventions, because it is simply not fair to the people who want to speak later in the debate.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would say to the hon. Lady that I have spoken about the nature of our analysis. This motion refers to sectoral analysis, and that is what we are focusing on today. However, I do want to come to the issue here, and the motion also speaks about the Exiting the European Union Committee.
If the hon. Gentleman will give me one moment, I should say that I look forward to hearing from Hilary Benn, and perhaps from the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, what discussions the latter had with the Select Committee before this motion was tabled. Perhaps the Chair of the Committee, in his comments later on, could provide some suggestions to the House as to how the Committee could safeguard the confidentiality of information that might be sensitive or prejudicial.
The motion has not yet been carried. I will absolutely take note of the decisions of this House, as Ministers always do, and we will respond in due course.
I will not give way again, I am afraid.
The Government have consistently published information where we believe it is in the national interest to do so. We have already published 14 papers to address the current issues in the talks and to set out building blocks for the relationship that we would like to see with the EU both as we leave and in future. Those papers represent some of the hard work and detailed thinking that has been going on across Whitehall over the past 12 months. In addition, we have published technical notes shared with the European Union and may agree further joint publications with the EU as part of the ongoing negotiations.
But we must not forget that the House has voted repeatedly not to disclose material that could damage the United Kingdom’s position in negotiations with the European Union. Not only is that the approach taken by the UK—it is also the approach taken by the EU in its negotiations. The EU’s document, “Transparency in EU trade negotiations”, says:
“A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy to his counterpart from the outset: this is also the case for the EU.”
That once again drives home the need for a balance between transparency and securing the best outcome in the negotiations.
As the House will understand, many thousands of documents are being prepared across Government with regard to our exit from the European Union.
I will not give way to my right hon. Friend again.
The release of some of those documents would not undermine our negotiating position, although others might have more of an impact. The House will appreciate that the more information that is shared more widely, the less secure our negotiating position and the harder it becomes to secure the right deal for the British people. The House has the right to require the release of documents. However, I sincerely hope that in what is requested, and how much is requested, by the Opposition spokesman, the Select Committee and the House, they will guarantee the necessary confidentiality and be mindful of the job that Ministers need to do. That job is to secure the vital national interests of the United Kingdom as we negotiate our departure from the European Union.
I welcome the chance to contribute to this debate. I hope that we can concentrate on the fundamentally important matter at hand. This debate is not about which party’s position on Brexit has been more chaotic; it is about the importance of making sure that Parliament and the public have information to which they are entitled to hold us all to account. A few minutes ago, I was reminded of what a pity it is that these analyses were not available before
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government and those in the leave campaign had a moral and an ethical duty to do this work and to give a proper timescale, as we called for at the time of the Brexit debate? Does he think that the assessments were not published because the Government are scared of the truth or because they would not fit on the side of a bus?
I suspect that it may have been all the above and more reasons besides.
Is it not ironic that yet again, in response to a decision that was supposed to restore sovereignty to Parliament, for those who believe in such an idea, it now appears that even the Parliament that exercises sovereignty on behalf of Her Majesty does not have the right to instruct the Government to make representations to Her Majesty on our behalf? We can ask, and the Government can simply ignore—well, they cannot ignore, but they can say, “No, we’re no’ doing it,” which apparently is not the same as ignoring. What an utter shambles of a way to run a sweetie shop, never mind a country.
I have been a very long-standing supporter of open government and freedom of information. I remember as an opposition SNP councillor being in the strange position of enthusiastically supporting legislation proposed by the then Labour-Lib Dem coalition in the Scottish Parliament against complaints from Labour councillors that it would somehow undermine the working of the council. I believe that improved public availability of information always leads to better government. Occasions when information needs to be restricted, or some information needs to be redacted, should be seen very much as the exception rather than the rule.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a legal case pending, which my colleague in the European Parliament, Molly Scott Cato, is leading. Does he agree that rather than going through all the extra work, time and taxpayers’ money involved in fighting a legal case, the Government should just show us what it is in the public interest to show us now?
I was going to say that, not having seen the information, I am at a disadvantage compared with the Cabinet, but I am not convinced that I am, because I do not think most of them have seen it either. I am perfectly prepared to accept that some of it—perhaps quite a lot of it—cannot be made public, but I do not think a document exists that cannot be made public in some form. If the Government really want to give the public information, there are always ways in which details can be removed.
The comment has been made that we are talking about public information, paid for by the public and produced by a public organisation, which exists only for the benefit of the public. I always take the view that information should be disclosed where possible and withheld only where necessary. My view of freedom of information was eloquently expressed 250 years ago, and I am pleased that Madam Deputy Speaker is still here to hear this, although she is no longer in the Chair:
“Here’s freedom to them that wad read,
Here’s freedom to them that wad write,
There’s nane ever fear’d that the truth should be heard,
But they whom the truth would indite.”
I appreciate that for some Members, that might be a difficult thing to think about just now.
I have always been convinced that far too many public bodies have hidden behind statutory exemptions in freedom of information legislation, not to protect the interests of the public but to protect the interests of those who withhold the information. That seems to have played a significant part in the Government’s thought processes in this instance. A member of the Government originally claimed that even to confirm that the analyses existed would somehow fatally undermine the UK’s negotiating position with the European Union. It is hard to see how anybody could make the UK’s negotiating position any more untenable than it already is, but let us look at how making any of the information available might weaken the UK’s position.
It seems to me that there are three possible scenarios. In scenario 1, the secret information shows that the UK’s position is a lot stronger than any of us suspected—I do not know; that might be possible—so instead of negotiating from a position of weakness, the UK is negotiating from a position of considerable strength. How does it weaken our negotiating position if those on the other side of the table think that we are strong, rather than weak? It does not, so in scenario 1, it is in the UK’s interests for the European Union to have the information.
In scenario 2, the analysis simply confirms what everybody knows and what analysis from everybody else under the sun has already indicated, which is that leaving the European Union is seriously bad for the UK economy, that it is seriously bad for us socially and culturally and that it will weaken our reputation worldwide, emboldening other potential trade partners to push for ever more difficult and damaging trade deals and ensuring that we have to go cap in hand to look for them.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it is at all possible to have a worse fishing policy and to do more damage to the Scottish fishing industry outside the EU than in it? Why does he not speak up for Brexit, because it has lots of great features?
I do not think that it is possible for any Government to sell out Scotland’s fishing industry in the way the UK Government did 50 years ago. That is a matter of public record, but it could not be made known to the fishing communities or anyone else for 30 years, because it was covered by the Official Secrets Act at the time. That is the reason why Governments withhold information for as long as possible—not in the interests of open government, but to protect themselves from proper public scrutiny.
I return to scenario 2. If it shows exactly what everybody already knows, how can producing more evidence to confirm what we already know possibly damage the UK’s position? It cannot, so scenario 2 cannot cause any damage.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you are able to rule on this matter before any more confusion is added to the debate. Is it your understanding that the motion as presented, if carried, leaves open to Her Majesty’s Government the timing of when they choose to lay these matters before Parliament and that, if that is the case, the Government could lay these matters before Parliament after the negotiations?
The answer is that it is for the Government, not for me, to respond on that point. There has been a question about whether this is binding. What is binding is the need to carry forward the debate. Let us have no more ado.
The third scenario—many of us are increasingly convinced that this is what has happened—is that the detailed analysis indicates that the damage caused by Brexit will be even worse than any of us previously feared. Yes, that would weaken and fatally undermine the UK’s negotiating position. It may well be that the analysis shows that Brexit is such a catastrophic decision that we should not do it at all. What kind of Government in possession of that information would choose to hide it, rather than to act on it? It seems to me that the only scenario in which releasing any of the information can possibly undermine the UK’s position is if that information shows that the damage caused by Brexit is worse than any previous analysis has indicated.
Is there not an unattributed briefing from a Minister who has said, “We either destroy the Conservative party, or we destroy the country”—that was their choice of words—and in this case are they not choosing, by hiding these documents, to destroy the country rather than to destroy the Conservative party?
I could not comment on that quote, but throughout the Brexit shambles there have been plenty of instances when it has been very clear that the Government are acting in the interests of the unity of the Conservative party, rather than in the interests of the United Kingdom—not that the attempt to retain unity in the Conservative party has been too successful.
Last week, the Secretary of State for Brexit got into a real muddle when he was asked whether the Government intended to make any of this information available to the devolved Governments and in particular, under questioning by my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry, whether the assessment of the impact on Scotland would be shared with the Scottish Government. At first, he seemed to cast doubt on whether such an assessment existed at all, and then he admitted that it probably existed, but he was not sure it would ever be shared with anybody. Then he assumed it had already been shared with the Scottish Government—it still has not been shared, by the way—and, finally, he acknowledged that it had not been shared yet but eventually would be.
By a process of elimination—or, perhaps, by accident—the Secretary of State therefore managed to say the same as his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland said to the Scottish Affairs Committee 24 hours earlier. It is concerning, but not surprising, that the Minister appears to have departed from that today. It seems that as soon as two Ministers agree on something, a third has got to disagree with it almost on principle. The fact is that, even a week later, the information has still not been shared—none of it. The relevant Minister in the Scottish Government, Mike Russell, has had to write to the Secretary of State to remind him of the undertaking that was given and to ask for that information to be shared so that, for example, discussions in the JMC can be more meaningful than they have been until now.
Another possible reason for the Secretary of State’s reluctance to share any of the information comes from an answer he gave later in the same evidence session last week:
“I am not a great fan of mathematical models. They are almost always wrong.”
He referred to a revelation from Norman Lamont who, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, was told by the Treasury that he would become the most unpopular man in Britain and that that was the only thing Treasury staff ever told him that turned out to be correct. The Secretary of State went on to say that, sadly, the Norman Lamont story was true:
“I am afraid it is the truth. These models are never right.”
The models produced by the Government at the public expense are never right. That will make for an interesting Budget in a couple of weeks’ time. What kind of a defence is it to tell a parliamentary Committee, “The reason why we will not give you access to information that has been produced at great public cost is that we do not believe it any more than you do.”?
The Government have previously refused a formal freedom of information request, as was mentioned by Keir Starmer. They refused even to confirm whether some of these analyses existed, because they were concerned that even to confirm that such documents existed or that such analysis had taken place might lead some to take precipitate action as a result. This comes from a Government who were excessively precipitate in holding a referendum before people really knew what they were voting on. They were precipitate in triggering article 50 before they knew what it would mean, and they were precipitate in calling a general election, which did not turn out particularly well. It is therefore a bit rich for them to be concerned about anyone else acting in a precipitate manner.
I am not a scholar of Latin, but I remember as a student teacher, over 30 years ago, hearing a very experienced chemistry teacher asking a class of pupils doing experiments involving chemical elements being precipitated in a test tube whether any of them knew about precipitates in the Bible. He explained to them, because he was of a generation that could recite the Bible in English and Latin, and probably in Greek as well, that the word “precipitate” came from the Latin word “praecipitare”, and “se praecipitare” was a verb used in the Bible to describe the actions of the Gadarene swine as they launched themselves off a cliff edge.
I will never ceased to be amazed at just how many prophecies in the good book come true sooner or later. The Government have been precipitate throughout this entire sorry affair. They have artificially, unilaterally and quite arbitrarily put immense time pressure on themselves, this Parliament and the overworked staff at the Department for Exiting the European Union and elsewhere.
It is no defence against that chaos or against the repeated display of incompetence we have had from the Government now to say that we cannot trust the public with information that exposes the full damage that the Government’s incompetence will cause. The electorate were sophisticated enough to understand after the vote in the referendum that when the Government said we could still be in the single market if we were out of the EU, they did not mean it. The electors in east London were sophisticated enough to know that when a Minister told them, “If we leave the EU, we will stop immigration from the EU and those of you who have family in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan will be able to bring them over to replace those people,” that was rubbish. The electorate were sophisticated enough to know that when someone who is now a Minister promised £357 million more for the health service, that was Boris being Boris. They were sophisticated enough to know that we never believe anything the Foreign Secretary says. Well, we do not need to be too sophisticated to realise that, I suppose.
So the electorate are sophisticated enough to known that all the promises that were made before the referendum really did not mean anything, yet they are not sophisticated enough, or educated or intelligent enough, to look at an impact assessment, or a summary of an impact assessment, and make their own decisions about the competence and the re-electability of a Government who got us into this mess in the first place.
Without even having seen this information, I believe it is not being made widely available because it demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that leaving the EU is the wrong way to go. Leaving the single market would be catastrophic for these islands and the Government should change course before they follow the Gadarene swine over that cliff edge.
Order. To help the Chair, can we have fewer interventions? Those Members who are on the list of speakers who have intervened I will put lower down to try to make sure we get fairness.
I rise to support the Government. I am delighted that they do not want me to vote against the motion. I am happy to accept their guidance on that. I am someone who usually favours full disclosure and publication of interesting information, but I urge Ministers not to reveal anything that could damage our negotiating position in any way. It is cavalier to the point of irresponsibility that the Opposition wish to have everything published in the hope that they will find something damaging to the UK position, because all they ever do is run the UK down. All they ever do is say we are wrong to want Brexit. All they ever do is say to their voters, “You made the wrong decision. We are going to block it, dilute it, slow it down. We are going to try to prevent it.” I for one am heartily sick of the complete lack of sensible co-operation with the wishes of their voters.
Of course it should see documents, as long as they do not harm the national interest, and it is Ministers who are charged with the duty of ensuring that the national interest is upheld. It is quite obvious that Labour Members have absolutely no wish to uphold the national interest, and whenever I debate with them they tell me that the EU is right, the EU is in a strong position and the EU will grind us down. They should be speaking up for their electors and the jobs in their constituencies, because Brexit is teeming with opportunity.
We are asked to talk about sectoral impact assessments, so let’s hear it for the fishing industry. It is going to be a much stronger, better British industry when we can have our own territorial waters and our own policy. [Interruption.]
Order. I am struggling to hear the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that everybody wants to listen to every word he has to tell the Chamber.
They do not like good news, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let us consider the agricultural industry. Is it not a great tragedy that we have lost so much of our capacity to make our own food and to grow our own food where our temperate climate allows? Will not being outside the EU enable us to have an agricultural policy that allows us to be more self-sufficient, so that there are fewer food miles travelled and more jobs for British farmers? Wouldn’t that be great? Why do the Opposition not spend a bit of time thinking about how that policy might work, and what a big opportunity it will be for that sector if we develop in such a way?
Would not it be great for quite a number of the sectors in our country if we got that £12 billion a year back as soon as possible and started spending it in the UK? I thought the Opposition understood that if you spend more money in a country, you create more jobs and more economic activity. When it comes to the money we send to Brussels, all we ever hear from them is, “Let’s keep sending them the money. Let’s do it next year, the year after, the year after that. Can we find a way to send the money for another three years after we’ve left?” It is outrageous that they want to give our money away in this way.
Wales did not lose out, because I wanted tax cuts for Welsh voters as well as for English voters, and that was the whole point of what we were doing; and we had more than adequately funded the health service, where I increased the amount of money, which the Labour Government in Wales do not do. I think my record is rather better than theirs when it comes to providing proper provision for the health service in Wales.
What we need to do is to have a proper debate on the sectoral impacts and look at the many positives, so that Opposition Members can debate in the way I am and talk about the opportunities for our country and the way our economy can be better, rather than continue in the depressingly negative way they always do, where they are desperate to find some bad information. They have come up with two things at the moment, which are clearly misleading, but they are constantly repeating them. First, they say that planes will not fly in April 2019, after we have left, without a special agreement and sending lots of money to the EU. I was very pleased the other day to see that Willie Walsh of British Airways made it very clear, in his professional view, that the planes will fly—and of course they will. There is no way Britain is going to stop German, French and Spanish planes coming into UK airports the day after we have left the EU, even without an agreement, and in their turn they will not want to stop our planes going there, with our tourists and with the people who want to go and spend money in their country.
Then there is another one that they are constantly telling us about, which is that there will be lorries queuing all the way back from Dover. I am not quite sure how that would work because it would mean that they were queuing in the sea. But of course, given modern, electronic frontiers, there is absolutely no reason why there should be huge queues.
We can have a system of authorised economic operators, developing the existing system, and it will be quite easy to speed the lorries through, and if we still have to impose tariffs because there is no agreement, we will be able to do that electronically, without there being a lorry jam.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the other side talk about queues at the port because they actually hope that Brexit will be a disaster for this country? They want to stop Brexit and they want the worst for this country. They should put Britain first.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it disingenuous or misleading Parliament to suggest that the £120 million you did not spend in Wales was the same as £120 million of tax cuts for the people of Wales when they did not get tax cuts in that year?
I think that is a silly point, because there were tax cuts from the Government and it was very important that we had a sensible Budget after we had made full provision.
The Opposition are always running things down. My worry about these sectoral studies is that there is a tendency amongst some of the Government advisers, and consultants to want to highlight every conceivable thing that could go wrong and lots of inconceivable things that could not conceivably go wrong, because that is how they make their money or that is what they think they are there to do. They do not risk-assess, there are very few genuine risks that need to be managed properly, and we still have 15 months to manage them. If necessary, we can manage them for ourselves without even needing the agreement of the EU.
I look forward to Ministers making a judicious response to this debate. I do not want them to share any information that undermines our position. I just live in hope that one day the Opposition will wake up to all those voters who wanted Brexit, and understand that they need to be positive and sympathetic to the British Government view, not to the EU view.
Passions are running rather high, but this is a deadly serious business. This is about transparency and the need for Parliament to have the information and facts it requires in order to do its job. I raised this question with the Secretary of State when I was first elected as Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee. I asked him how he proposed to handle the sharing of information. In a letter to me in October last year, he stated:
“There is an important balance to strike between transparency and confidentiality and information sharing will need to be considered in close detail.”
My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer spoke to me about this issue yesterday, and I pointed out to him that our Committee’s first report, published on
“In the interests of transparency, these should be published alongside the government’s plan in so far as it does not compromise the government’s negotiating hand.”
I make that point because the Committee accepted—indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend has accepted this from the Dispatch Box—that there might be certain information that the Government do not wish to put in the public domain and that it would not be right to do so, but that is not to say that nothing should be published, or that there is no method for sharing information with Select Committees in confidence.
Let me give an example. We are told that there is a Treasury analysis of the economic benefits to the UK of future free trade agreements with non-EU member states. The existence of that paper was revealed by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform back in June. According to the Financial Times of
“it is said to show that the value of new free trade agreements would be significantly less than the economic cost of leaving the customs union.”
None of us knows whether that is the case or not, because the Government have chosen thus far not to disclose that information to us. Yet that is information that we really ought to know, given that the Government have taken an absolutely major policy decision—that we should leave the customs union—without any analysis being shared with this House about the consequences or costs, or indeed the benefits, of that decision.
First, like all those who have been Ministers, I looked at—I will not pretend to have read them in their entirety—all the impact assessments that passed before my eyes during my time as a Minister. On all other matters, including relatively minor ones, the Government produce an impact assessment that is shared with Parliament and the public, so it really is extraordinary that for the single most important decision that this country, as a result of the referendum, has taken since the end of the second world war, the Government have published nothing by way of an impact assessment.
Secondly, there is the question—raised very effectively, I thought, by my right hon. and learned Friend—of who decides whether they can be published. I understand why Ministers told the Select Committee in evidence that they have not been able to read them all, and I have confessed that I did not read every single word of them when I was a Minister. Indeed, the Secretary of State told us that the analyses contain “excruciating detail”. He also confirmed that the Cabinet has not seen them. It could not be right for civil servants to make the decision about what should or should not be released; it clearly must be Ministers. The Select Committee has been told that a certain analysis will now be shared with the Scottish Government—the point made a moment ago—so I presume that that decision was taken by Ministers.
My right hon. Friend, in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee, asked what safeguards could be put in place to ensure that information that would be detrimental to the UK’s negotiating position is not released, and I wonder whether he could comment on that.
I shall come on to that point at the end of my remarks.
Thirdly, it is hard to believe that all the material has the potential to undermine our negotiating position. I would be intrigued to know how reports on museums, galleries and libraries, and crafts or real estate could contain information of such sensitivity that it would create difficulties for the Secretary of State when he next meets Mr Barnier.
On property, if there was an entirely bogus forecast of big job losses and a collapse in commercial property, it would be silly to publish that, as, first, it would be wrong and, secondly, it would be negative for our position.
It is not for me to argue the Government’s case, but if it were a bogus forecast I would be very surprised if the Government would have put it in an assessment they had drawn up—[Interruption] Please do not tempt me on this subject. This point raises the question of why, thus far, the Government have had a blanket policy of non-publication.
Having said all that, I welcome the spirit of what the Minister said today, even if I and—I venture to suggest—the House are not absolutely clear what was being offered when he helpfully said that the Government will not be opposing the motion. In that same spirit, I say to him, in conclusion, that if the Government comply with the motion, as they should if it is carried, and pass the information to us, I am sure the Select Committee—I hope the members who are here do not mind my saying this—would be very happy to discuss with Ministers how the material should be handled. We would be happy to discuss what can be published—to come back to the point made by my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander—and where the Committee might share the Government’s view that there might be some difficulties if it were put into the public domain. I hope that that offer to the Minister is helpful as the Government give effect to the motion, if, indeed, it is carried by the House this evening.
I rise to support the motion. I hope that the motion is put to the vote and I shall be walking through the Lobby in favour of it. If the Minister and the Government are not prepared to be bound by the terms of the motion, I gently say to them that we are not messing about here any more. This is grown-up, serious stuff. This is no longer a debate on the fringes of politics, where people can follow long-held ideological dreams they have had for decades. The country has voted— 52% of those who voted voted to leave the EU—and people like me accept that we are going to leave the EU. But I am not going to stand by and see the future of my children’s generation and the grandchildren I hope will follow being trashed and ruined without any form of debate and disclosure as to the consequences and, arguably, the options that might be available as disclosed in all these documents that cover so many sectors in so many ways.
So this is grown-up, serious stuff. I say to Members on this side that the days of carping from the sidelines have gone. I say to them: “You’ve won; you’re in charge of this; now you have to face up to the responsibility of delivering a Brexit that works for everybody in this country and for generations to come.” So what’s the problem? If the Government are not going to be bound by this motion, vote against it. If you abstain, you agree to it and you will abide by it. As I have said, these are serious matters.
I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with everything the right hon. Lady is saying. She is making a very sensible and rational speech. Does she agree that the irony is that some of our colleagues who so seek to have a sovereign, more powerful, more transparent Parliament are, by not agreeing the result of this motion, damaging democracy and the ability of Parliament and those who sit in it to do their jobs?
I agree. Let us be clear: this debate has always crossed the political divide. Many in the Labour party supported leave and many Conservatives supported remain. This transcends the normal political divide. I agree very much with the hon. Lady.
Let me explain why it is so important that we know what is in these documents. I am getting a bit of a feeling here. I rather take the view that there might be stuff in these huge impact assessments that perhaps hon. Members on this side do not want to put out into the public domain. They can and should redact every piece of commercially sensitive material in the documents, and anything that could undermine the security of our country should also be redacted. However, I am getting a rather strong feeling that, if the Government were to say that, whatever the options might be for the final deal, everything in this wonderful new post-Brexit world that awaits us was going to be brilliant and rosy, those Members who favour no deal would be the first to stand up and say to the Government, “Disclose these impact documents! Let the people see what wonders await them in this wonderful new post-Brexit world.” So what’s the problem?
I must say to my right hon. Friend John Redwood, as he represents all those fishing men and women who live in his constituency: how on earth can he say that we should not disclose all these documents because that would undermine the negotiations if he has not seen them—or even some form of summary of them—in the first place? The implication is quite clear: there is something in them that is not to be disclosed because it might actually prick this golden bubble, this balloon, that is the promised land of Brexit. My constituents are entitled to know the consequences of the options that are available to this Government as they negotiate the transition and then, most importantly, the final deal. My constituents are concerned about their jobs, and so are the businesses in my constituency.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that her constituents and mine have the right to know the costs of a no-deal Brexit option? The Government are refusing to answer my parliamentary questions asking how much each Department is putting aside for Brexit contingency planning and planning for a no deal. Does she agree that that information should be in the public domain?
I absolutely agree. Other hon. Members have talked about the impact that they fear this will have on their constituents and on their part of our great country, and they are right to do so. How can local authorities, businesses and chambers of commerce—and all the other people who create our country’s great economy and the jobs and prosperity that we have now and will need in the future—plan for those things and make important decisions without the necessary information? How can we as a country come together, as people say we should, to heal the divide between the 52% and the 48%? We have failed to do that so far. How can we do all those things unless we are open and frank with people and bring them into the discussion about what Brexit is going to look like and what final deal can be secured for our country?
Whatever Keir Starmer might say about Government policy, it is now clear what we want from the transition deal, thanks to the Prime Minister’s excellent Florence speech, which was widely welcomed. But let us be honest, what happened then? We heard the usual “noises off” trying to undermine her and destabilise her position. Thankfully, however, the Prime Minister has stood firm, and full credit to her for doing so. But even now, at this moment, my Government have still not worked out what their policy is for that final deal, and the usual voices continue to make their irresponsible argument for no deal and for falling off the cliff edge. That is the most dangerous thing that could possibly happen to our economy and to the generations to come.
That is absolute nonsense, if I may say so to my right hon. Friend. I hope that he might support that amendment, because at its heart is what he has told the British people he believes in. It is about taking back control in this Parliament, not relying on arguments from the right hon. Gentleman for the 19th century, who actually suggested that this Parliament might be bound by a decision in—heaven forbid—a foreign Parliament. The Canadians! I thought we had voted to take back control, and that is absolutely right. This is one of the most important decisions this country has ever made, and what Brexit will look like should be put before this House. It is a crying shame that we have had no debates, binding motions or votes on the future of our country. Future generations will judge us on that. I stood and warned people about the consequences to my party unless it stood up for everybody in this country and abandoned a hard Brexit. I was ignored, and we lost our majority. Millions of people feel that they are unrepresented by any political party, but I hope that my party will now change that by embracing the 48%.
Each of us has a responsibility as a parliamentarian—it is the basic reason why we are here—to represent those who have put us here. It is our duty as parliamentarians to ask questions and gain information in order to make correct judgments on how we vote. That is why we want to see the impact assessments for the various sectors. Speaking for my constituency, the three sectors that I am most concerned about are construction, production and the creative industries, and medical services and social care. I simply want to be able to explain to my constituents the way that I will be voting over the coming months.
Would my hon. Friend add the British aerospace industry to that list? In north Wales, 7,000 jobs in one factory in Broughton depend on it. With 100,000 jobs in total, would aerospace be up there on her list of sectors that we need information on?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Knowing the facts and figures behind the Government’s thinking in various sectors is even more important in the regions, where there can be an over-dependence on one industry.
Parliament should be hugged, not pushed away. The Government should be hugging us, because they need us. In some ways, the Government’s Front-Bench team needs us more than we need them. I would welcome another election; let us have one tomorrow. We have to work together on this, but we can work together only if Members do not feel frustrated and left in the dark.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the impact on industries in our local areas. Does she agree that the medical services and social care sector is incredibly important in all our constituencies? A leaked Department of Health report from earlier this year suggested that there could be a shortfall of 40,000 nurses if there is a hard Brexit—
I agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for all her excellent forensic questioning in this area. It is sad, however, that she has had to spend hours and hours asking those questions when it is really our basic right as parliamentarians to have the information we need for this important treaty making. It is probably the most important constitutional question that we in this Parliament will have to grapple with. My worry is that we could be heading for a crash course, which relates to my intervention on John Redwood about there being an element of people not wanting to know the facts and figures. Those who have already made up their mind want to be positive, but perhaps they also want to ignore the facts. That is the opposite extreme, and opposites are unnecessary and probably bad in this regard.
I have redoubled the number of meetings that I am having, and I am polishing up my Mandarin Chinese so that I can improve our standing with one of our big trading partners. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is important that this does not end up like a Pentecostalist meeting where we close our ears and eyes and just sing for the positivity of Brexit. We should engage our minds as well our emotions when dealing with the taxing and difficult question of what the future will hold for our children and their children.
I want to make a quick point about the cliff-edge scenario. I am unsure whether we have really explored it. None of us wants it. The Prime Minister said in her Florence speech that she wants a transition deal just as much as those of us who are sensible and also want it. Let us imagine, in the worst of all possible worlds, that we are on a crash course leading towards the cliff edge. I am deeply concerned about inflation, flat wages, the more than £200 billion of household debt and the fact that interest rates are going up this week. These are deeply concerning and worrying times for our economy, with or without Brexit. I am worried about the combination of factors, which is why we need a proper analysis from the Treasury of the broad overall picture of non-Brexit-related issues.
There are other people whose opinions we must trust. For example, the former chief mandarin of the Foreign Office, Sir Simon Fraser, has said that the differences between us in our debates on Brexit mean that the UK has been “absent” from the formal negotiations, perhaps leading to this terrible cliff-edge scenario.
Crashing out could lead to real questions about the safety of our nuclear facilities, and other Members have mentioned the European Aviation Safety Agency. Air tickets can be purchased up to a year in advance, which brings us close to three or four months before March 2019. What will we do about the lack of alignment and regulation on other transport questions and on agriculture, financial services and banking?
I finish on the human question of the European citizens in our communities. Not a surgery goes by without a European citizen coming to explain that, despite living in the UK for 37 years, contributing to the economy and bringing up a family, they feel deeply alienated and angry. The rhetoric around xenophobic feelings and around whether they feel accepted or not seems to have been heightened. Some families even want to return to European countries after living in the UK for 37 years, which is a terrible shame, all because of the lack of certainty and the lack of a scientific approach to Brexit. The Home Office lacks a firm approach, and it is constantly moving the goalposts. Crashing out of the EU would be worst for EU nationals, who would be left completely in limbo. The impact in certain regions would be horrendous, and the health sector would probably be worst affected, as our NHS is so dependent.
Will the Government please stop their confusion, division and chaos? Please do not drag us back again and again on this point. Be firm and give us the information that our constituents expect.
From the mood music in the Chamber, and from what I am hearing from the two Front Benches, it appears that the Opposition feel confident that their motion, if it is not successfully opposed, will to some extent cause the Government to release the papers. I therefore work on the basis that that may well be the case.
What will the papers look like, and what would be a responsible position for both sides of the House to take with respect to that information, and particularly with respect to redacting certain information that may be deemed commercially sensitive to the organisations that have provided it? I ask that question in the true spirit of transparency, because, if information that has been passed to the Government on the basis that it would not be released thereafter is subsequently released—there may be confidentiality agreements in place, albeit they would not survive a vote of this House— the danger is that those companies would not be as willing to provide so much information to the Government, and therefore to the House, in future. Perhaps Keir Starmer will be able to work on that basis with the Government Front Bench to ensure that, in making this a success, we do not end up lacking information from our business partners.
I sit on the Select Committee on Transport and, despite having sat for only a few weeks, the Chair, Lilian Greenwood, has already twice had to warn Committee members not to leak documentation. That is a difficulty, and I hope that if, indeed, the reports do go to the Brexit Committee, Hilary Benn.will take all the steps he can to ensure that, if certain redacted information is given to Committee members, we try to preserve the spirit in which those organisations delivered that information.
Looking beyond this challenge, and working on the basis that this information is to be given, I absolutely favour transparency and more information in the process; I am incredibly interested in what organisations have to say. I am well aware that often the advice of civil servants would be cautious, but I hope that Government Members will look beyond that and recognise that if we do not publish information—and we are therefore where we are today—Members such as Peter Grant to try to make out that there is a conspiracy or a smoking gun in the documentation. There may well be nothing of the sort, beyond cautious civil service advice. I hope that my side can take that into account.
I stand here as someone who voted remain in the referendum, although I did not campaign for the remain team. I spoke to my constituents, held a series of meetings and wrote to 40,000 households to give them information about both sides of the argument, and then I very much left it to them to decide. I do not believe they were duped when it came to the decision. I find it patronising beyond belief when SNP Members say that all my constituents, 60% of whom voted the other way from me, did so on some false basis and are not capable of making their own decisions. It is incredibly patronising to my constituents and many others to be told that. I left it to my constituents to make their decision and they did so, and it is my job, as a democrat, to ensure that that decision goes through.
Does my hon. Friend not accept that it is becoming clear that a number of promises made to people who voted leave will not be kept and that, in fact, the opposite is happening? Those people will not get £350 million a week for the NHS; they will not see the scrapping of all the regulations and so on, because they will be embodied in British law; they will not see a particular reduction in immigration; and, arguably, they will not be better off. It is not that they were stupid by any means—they were simply conned.
The danger with that argument is it presupposes that everybody in this Chamber knows exactly the reasons why people voted the way they did. The reality, from the question on the ballot paper, is that more people voted to leave than voted to remain. That is all we know. We do not know the reasons why and it would be wrong for us to try to interpret them. I have been elected by those same constituents, so of course I would say they are right, but SNP Members may wish to think about the same principle: for whatever reason, they came to that decision and they were right.
What I want to do is make a success of it. This is the big concern about this debate, which is a great technical debate that I have found interesting, as a lawyer. The question is whether it moves us forward to making a success of leaving the EU? We must remember that 498 out of 650 Members of this House voted to trigger article 50. Surely it follows that it is in their interests to make a success of a decision that, ultimately, they made. Yet time and again the House is used as a mechanism to slow the process down and try to defeat the ultimate goal of those who voted in that manner. I find that a terrible shame.
I will not take any more interventions; the hon. Gentleman will have his own time.
As I was saying, I find that a shame. On Monday, our Transport Committee heard from four leaders—those of British Airways, EasyJet, Manchester airport and Heathrow airport. We challenged them on whether this would be a success for industry and they could not have been more confident that it would be. They were confident in their industry, but with the proviso that, between industry and politicians, we would make a success of it. My concern is that politicians seem to be the ones who do not have it in them to make a success of it. Again, I challenge all hon. Members who voted to trigger article 50 to talk it up and make a success of this process.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the exchanges in the debate. The motion on the Order Paper is clear and unqualified: it says that the impact assessments should
“be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.”
During the debate, though, those who proposed the motion and others who support it have suggested that parts of those documents might be withheld. Have you received an amendment to the motion that might qualify what should be provided to the Select Committee, or is it for the Government to interpret what they should do after the debate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I can answer the practical part of it very simply by saying that the Chair has received no such amendment. As far as I am concerned—and I can be very positive about this—the matter that is currently being debated is exactly the wording in the motion before us on the Order Paper. The way in which the Opposition interpret that might be different from the way in which the Government interpret it. That is what this Chamber is here for: to discuss those differences and come to a conclusion.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Government to disclose to members of the media what they plan to do in relation to the documents we are discussing? I have just seen a tweet from the rather excellent political correspondent from The Sun newspaper, who says that he understands that the Government will release the documents, albeit heavily redacted.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her very reasonable point of order. It is not for the Chair to rule on what the Government may say to journalists, but I say to the right hon. Lady that while a debate is going on in the Chamber about a matter of great importance, the place where announcements in connection with or pertaining to that matter of importance should be made is here in the Chamber.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You said that the debate is about not only the motion but how the Government interpret it. Should papers be provided to the Exiting the European Union Committee, surely other Select Committees—such as the International Trade Committee, which I chair, and perhaps the Health Committee and several others—should be in play. Then again, if the Government do a full U-turn and release the information, we should welcome that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. From his point of view as the Chairman of another Select Committee, he has made his point well. As I said earlier, that is not a matter on which I can make a ruling from the Chair at this moment.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There seems to be in the Government’s mind some belief that they should do all the redaction. If the House decides that the impact assessments should be provided to a Select Committee, I believe it would be better if the Select Committee could then decide what it was going to publish. The serious, important point is that were any member of that Committee to breach the Committee’s decisions and publish the impact assessments willy-nilly, off their own bat, I am sure you would agree that that would be a matter of privilege. It would be a contempt of Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his most interesting point of order, but it is hypothetical. I would hope that any member of a Committee would act in a way that would not be a breach of privilege and would not breach the rules of Parliament. The whole of issue of privilege, its importance and the importance of behaving in a way that is commensurate with the role of being an hon. Member of this House is there not for the sake of tradition or any frothy reason, but to preserve our freedom through democracy. That is why these matters are of great importance.
We will now return to the debate because, as the Chamber well knows, these are not points of order for the Chair, but are matters for debate. There is clearly disagreement, which is why we have debates on these matters. We will recommence with Mr Phil Wilson.
Let me start by following on from what the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, said about the customs union. I have received information from the North East England Chamber of Commerce about the state of companies in the north-east and about how they will deal with leaving the customs union. It believes that the majority of its companies do not have the necessary skills to deal with the new customs arrangements that we will have when we leave. It says that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs shows no inclination of providing any support to businesses to ensure company compliance. In fact, the new intake of 1,000 HMRC staff will be there just to raise revenue, not to help ensure that companies get the documentation right. It also says that if we have a no-deal scenario where everything sent from and to the EU has to have a customs declaration for clearance purposes, the cost to business will be huge. A customs declaration currently costs between £20 and £40—in some cases it is £75. Sometimes companies are charged by the line.
There are 16,600 commodity codes and more than 300 custom procedure codes. Even taking the view that businesses will get to know the commodity codes and the custom procedure codes that they use regularly, it will not be an easy task to get used to the change. They will need training, which will not be available, and they think that they will need a major upgrade of software and IT equipment to deal with the changes.
Given that background, it is not surprising that many of our companies and businesses want to know what the impact will be of leaving the single market and the customs union in March 2019. More than 60% of the trade in the north-east of England is with the EU. My constituency has the biggest business park in the region, with more than 500 companies based there employing between 10,000 and 12,000 people. A few weeks ago, I was at a Brexit seminar on the industrial estate, and the one thing that I kept hearing about was the uncertainty. People kept saying, “What happens next?” Some said, “What are the questions that we need to ask?” I said that the one thing they needed was access to the impact assessments. We need to be able to work out how the sectors of our industry will be affected.
It might be easy for multinationals such as Hitachi, Nissan and Airbus to put the capacity into the problem so that they can see how they will be affected by the various scenarios in the future. The vast majority of companies on the industrial estate—the business park in Newton Aycliffe—are small and medium-sized enterprises and they do not have such capacity. For them, it is all about tactics. It is not so much about strategy, but about getting through the next year, and they need help. They need to know how they will be affected in the future.
Let us look at some of the sectors that are represented in that business park in Newton Aycliffe. Some 814,000 people who work in the automotive sector generally are feeling insecure at the moment and need to know what is going to happen. The construction and engineering sector employs 2.9 million people; the electricity, marketing and renewables sector 112,000 people; the electronics sector 850,000 people; the IT, software and computers sector 1.4 million; the medical devices sector 50,000; and the professional services sector 1.1 million. The list goes on. All those sectors are represented on the Newton Aycliffe business park.
We do not want to reveal everything—that might not be in the national interest—but companies and the Brexit Committee need to be able to analyse what is happening. What are we frightened of? What do the Government not want us to see? I fear that much of the redacted information will be a bit negative. Some of it might not be in the national interest, and therefore should not be revealed, but some of it might prove that the line the Government are following is not in the national interest.
In supporting this motion, I am saying that we need openness. We need to take back control in this Chamber. Those who wanted to leave said that throughout the referendum; now we need to put it into practice.
Phil Wilson, who has just sat down, is another supporter of this motion who is now talking about the release of a set of justifiably redacted documents, as opposed to the complete documents. This underlines the fact that the House is debating documents, but we do not really know what is in them because we do not have them.
Some colleagues think that these documents will contain some dreadful smoking gun that will blow the Government’s case out of the water. I can honestly say that I believe that the Government are far more concerned about releasing information into the public domain that will actually help the European Union in the negotiations, when the European Union clearly has no intention of releasing its impact assessments. Indeed, one of the reasons we are leaving the European Union is that this House has absolutely no power over which documents the European Union should be compelled to release because it is completely beyond the power of this House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
We are beginning to see, in this rather messy and untidy debate, why this 19th century procedure is not used very often. The usual procedure would be that the Select Committee would request the documents, but it has not requested these documents. No writ or summons have been issued for any of these documents. We simply have this motion.
There is a sensitivity within Government about releasing documents that are used to make political points. Part of the Treasury’s reputation was severely trashed when, in the run-up to the referendum, it released documents that were patently misleading and were used for propaganda purposes in a way that I think rather embarrassed Treasury officials.
Then there is the question of the status of the motion. The words “binding” or “not binding” do not appear in “Erskine May”. There is a misappreciation of the meaning of these motions. By passing a motion, the House is not making law. There are no obligations that are enforceable through the courts as there would be if we were passing a set of regulations or an Act of Parliament. It is simply an expression of the will of the House.
My hon. Friend takes me to the very next point, which is that it would be unconscionable for any Government to ignore a motion. But I heard the Minister very clearly saying that he does not intend to ignore the motion. In fact, he made it clear that the Government will respond to the motion. This echoes what the Leader of the House said recently in business questions about Opposition day motions. She said that there should be a standard, and that the Government will respond to a motion in the House within, at most, 12 weeks of the will of the House being expressed in such a way.
The very fact that we are having a debate about exactly what would be released means that it is a matter for the Government and Ministers to interpret. If the House is then still not satisfied with what has been released, the House can come back to it. Let us not get in a paddy that there is some great constitutional principle. Parliament is sovereign not because it passes motions, but because, in the Diceyan sense, Parliament can make or unmake any law; and I reiterate that in this matter, we are not making law—at least, not law that is statute law and enforceable through the courts.
It is worth repeating to the House what the Minister reminded us during his opening remarks, which is that the House has previously voted, by a large majority, to protect sensitive information that is relevant to the negotiations. That is why I invite the official Opposition to think very carefully before repeating this exercise. These documents may not be very serious and there may not be very much in them, but this is a power to call for papers that should be used sparingly, precisely because these are the negotiations of a generation.
Unless the Government have the freedom to conduct the negotiations with the necessary confidentiality, the Opposition will undermine the ability of the Government to produce the better terms of settlement that the Opposition say they want. This is potentially extremely disruptive and irresponsible, and Keir Starmer knows it. This is more about party politics and exploiting the situation for party advantage than it is about supporting the national interest. There may be a great sea of Opposition colleagues jeering at that point, but they are jeering at the national interest when they jeer in that fashion.
My hon. Friend has hit on the most salient point. My family business is on the industrial estate in Newton Aycliffe, mentioned by Phil Wilson. That business, like all the others I have met on that industrial estate, care about one thing: getting the best deal for the United Kingdom. They do not want the Government or this House to do anything that will compromise that. Releasing these papers will do just that.
The businesses I speak to in my constituency and around the country are increasingly impatient with the games being played here at Westminster and the games being played by the European Union. They want us to leave the European Union and they want us to get on with this to end the uncertainty as quickly as possible. They do not want a protracted and uncertain future for this country, made worse by the irresponsible tactics of the Opposition.
The last Brexit promise left standing was the promise to take back control. What we are seeing today is the Brexiteers running away from control.
It always struck me as odd that those in the Scottish National party believe in self-determination for Scotland, but want to sell out to a superstate European Union. I have never understood how they reconcile the desire for independence with wanting to be shackled to a superstate in which they would have but a pimple of influence compared to the influence they have in the United Kingdom.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Should we not use the correct terminology in this Parliament? Should we not understand what the European Union is? It is a union of 28 sovereign Governments. It is very far away from being a superstate.
That is not a point of order. There have been too many points of order and too many long interventions. I am now reducing the time limit for speeches to three minutes, because that is all the time we have left.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have always believed in the ability of our country to pool sovereignty with the European Union. I have listened to Mr Jenkin over many, many years trying to persuade me about the sovereignty of this Parliament. It is great to participate in a debate that is demonstrating the sovereignty of this Parliament.
I first started asking questions on this issue on
I want to see the impact assessments, because there are things in them that I expect to read. I expect to read that the health service is going to do a lot with the £350 million. I look forward to seeing it. I expect to read, as we heard during the referendum campaign, that we do not need to worry about a skills gap because there are lots of people in our country who are going to step into those roles. I look forward to seeing what the Department for Work and Pensions makes of the assessment on skills, along with its colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I look forward to hearing what assessment has been made by the Home Office of whether, when we have limited free movement and we ask the Indians for a trade deal, they will ask whether they can have visas. For all those reasons, it is important to understand whether the arguments that have been put forward by many Conservative Members are actually made in those impact assessments.
However, the real reason this is important is the seriousness of this debate. As night follows day, it will mostly not be us in this Chamber who suffer or struggle as a consequence of any shift in our economy. It is people’s jobs and livelihoods and how they feed their children that matters, and for that reason, we must see those impact assessments. It is a crying shame that this process began because of parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests, and not because the Government felt able to be open.
First, I am very glad that these impact assessments and cross-sectoral assessments exist. I said over a year ago that we should be looking at the detail. As a British Conservative in the European Parliament, I worked hand in hand with British Conservative Ministers to champion better regulation. I said that, before we made decisions, we should consult stakeholders, look at the different impacts and assess the options. I thank the Government for going through that exercise. I am delighted that Ministers have been meeting stakeholders and talking to businesses, Government organisations and consumer groups.
However, I understand why the Opposition want to know more about what is going on. There is deep concern about this issue in the country. Brexit does carry risks—as a remainer, I warned about that. The risks have not gone away, and the country needs to be reassured that we are acting in its best interests. Transparency is really important.
However, the decisions are not black and white. Ministers will have been given price-sensitive, confidential information. I know that because stakeholders have told me that they have given such information. If that information is put in the public domain, the very jobs that Opposition Members say they want to protect would actually be jeopardised.
This information could also jeopardise our ongoing negotiations. It is not normal in a trade negotiation to show all our cards; indeed, it is normal to keep our cards close to our chest. That is what the European Parliament does. During the EU-US trade agreements, information on sector-specific issues was not shared with Committee meetings. The negotiators did not even come and give information in a public forum. Their feedback between the different rounds of negotiations was given behind closed doors. When information was shared with the relevant Committees, that was done in a highly confidential way. People would need to go to a room, leave their phone behind, read the papers in confidence and not disclose price-sensitive information. So let us not say that this information should be shared, without thinking through the impact of doing so.
I rise to urge Members on both sides of the House to support the motion. I do so for the simple reason that, without publication, it is impossible for this House to do its job, which is to hold the Government to account. We must have a full, frank and informed debate about what Brexit means, and particularly about what a no-deal Brexit would mean for our society, for our economy and for jobs, trade and living standards. The fact is that this House and the British people cannot have that debate without access to the key information.
We face a productivity crisis, a weakened pound, creeping inflation, higher input costs and the slowest GDP growth in Europe—all challenges that would be deeply and dramatically compounded by a no-deal Brexit. No deal would mean customs chaos. Adding just an extra two minutes to customs proceedings at Dover would mean a 17-mile queue from Dover almost back to Ashford. No deal would mean airlines were not sure whether their planes would be able to take off post-Brexit. No deal would mean thousands of citizens and businesses left in limbo—maybe temporarily, maybe not—when it was realised that many of their products were no longer eligible for sale across the EU. So let us hope that the Government will now drop their dangerous and vacuous no-deal bluff. The Government contend that to maximise leverage in the negotiations we must make it clear that we are prepared and willing to accept a no-deal scenario. Taking this logic at face value, surely, then, the more bullish we look and the better prepared we appear to be to manage the new tariffs and customs duties at Dover or at the airport, the greater our leverage would be.
If the impact assessments were positive, they would not only have been published—their findings would be screamed from the rooftops. That is why the failure to publish makes it crystal clear that the no-deal rhetoric is a bluff—a bluff that weakens us and undermines our credibility in the negotiations. It is yet another example of the Brexiteer tail wagging the Tory dog; yet another example of the national interest playing second fiddle to the internal factional interests of the Conservative party; yet another example of putting party before country, where the Prime Minister has put the placation of her own Back Benchers ahead of the interests of our country. I ask right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to put country first and to support this motion tonight.
I find the basis for this debate utterly baffling, especially in the light of the fact that on
This is a complex negotiation, and it is important that we get it right. It is normal that in even the most basic trade negotiations there needs to be a degree of secrecy, as my hon. Friend Vicky Ford highlighted, based on her experience in the European Parliament. The European Commission made that very clear when it said recently:
“A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy to his counterpart from the outset: this is also the case for the EU.”
If that is the case for the EU, why cannot it be the case for Britain?
We need to retain room for manoeuvre, including the ability to give and take—to trade off different interests and maximise the value of concessions—and to do so without always having the other side know what we know.
No, because I do not have time.
We need to retain our ability to negotiate with that degree of agility and speed. This trade negotiation is different from any other. We have a changing political context. It involves different parties—other countries that are members of the European Union. It involves elections and changing political contexts. We have already had elections in France, Germany and Austria, and we will have many more between now and 2019.
Parliamentary scrutiny is right, and it has been provided through questions, papers and debates. I urge Labour Members to get behind Britain, get behind Brexit and get behind the Government.
The refusal of the Government to publish these impact assessments is sadly part of a pattern of shutting out scrutiny and opposition throughout. The basic issue is that the Government are being driven by hard-line ideological Brexiteers whose priority is to leave with as hard a Brexit as possible. They want a blank canvas on which to repaint the UK in their own desolate vision, shorn of rights for ordinary people and protections for the environment and consumers, and creating as free a market as possible.
The Prime Minister warned the EU27 of the danger of the UK setting itself up as an offshore tax haven if we did not get a fair deal, but the truth is that that is exactly what the hard-line Brexiteers want and she is too weak to stand up to them. Indeed, I suspect that the failure to progress in the negotiations is due, in part, to an inability to reconcile the pressures within the Conservative party with the needs of the country; of course, the Conservative party comes first. I suspect that that will lead us to a situation in which we crash out without a deal, engineered to enable the Brexiteers to blame the EU27 for their intransigence.
The sinister and dangerous atmosphere that the Brexiteers seek to create is adding to the real nastiness in the country caused by the referendum. Remain MPs such as me have been described as “saboteurs”. The Governor of the Bank of England has been described as an “enemy of Brexit”. We still continually hear the phrase “the will of the people” used to describe the narrow victory for leave in the referendum, as though the 48% never existed. Last week, we saw an attack on academic integrity and freedom. It is like a Brexit inquisition designed to intimidate and silence scrutiny, in the same way as the Government are silencing scrutiny over these reports because they know how badly things are likely to go.
As other hon. Members have said, if the Government are so confident, why do they not publish the impact assessments? Let us see how strong the Government’s hand is. What have they got to hide? What is certain is that the Brexiteers want to rush through any deal before the absurdity of their position is exposed, hence the anti-intellectualism of this Brexit inquisition.
An even greater reason to shut down scrutiny and rush things through is the increasing evidence of manipulation of the referendum by foreign powers. The unholy alliance of Brexiteers, Trumpeteers and Russia is perhaps the most sinister aspect of the whole sorry affair, and I ask the Brexiteers why they want to align themselves with Putin’s Government in seeking the break-up of the EU. I support my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw in his call for an inquiry—which would, of course, have to be blocked by the Brexiteers in the Conservative party.
Disinfecting light must be shed on the Brexit process, and the first step to doing that would be the publication of the reports. When things go south after Brexit—and they will—the British people, who will suffer, will never forgive this Government for not revealing the truth while there was still time.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Some of my colleagues will know I that always find the discovery of new and arcane parliamentary procedure in the Chamber interesting, so it has been particularly good to be here this afternoon.
I draw Members’ attention to the motion that we are debating, because some Members seem to be under a false impression about it. Anyone listening to this debate would think that the motion says that everything should be released publicly and immediately, but that is not what it says. It says that the information should be
“provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.”
The Members who shouted in their speeches that the information would go out to the public have clearly not read their own motion.
I was interested to hear the slightly more conciliatory tone of the shadow Secretary of State and the Chair of the Select Committee, who both accepted that there would be an element of redaction and that certain information would legitimately have to be withheld in the national interest.
No, I will not. There is little time, and I have sat through the whole debate listening to people who have had their opportunity to speak.
Although I think it right that the Government are not opposing the motion, we need to be much clearer about what it is about. The tone of some of the speeches has been a lot more sensible than that of others. Some Members have taken the opportunity to rerun the referendum, which is all very interesting, and I am sure it has been fascinating to listen to, but at the core of the matter is the fact that people made their decision in June last year, and we now need to make the process successful.
I have heard the talk about the issues surrounding no deal, but I have yet to hear a representative of a European country say that the EU must stay with Britain in the negotiations until we finally give in to what they demand. The EU has left the possibility of no deal on the table, so it is not unreasonable for the UK Government, as the other party in the negotiations, to do exactly the same.
I was reassured to hear the Minister’s earlier comments, and I am sure that the Government genuinely want to engage with the House and engage with information that helps and advances our debate. Some of what we have heard this afternoon has simply been playing to the gallery. Some Members are trying to pretend that information is not being made available, when it will be. Others are demanding that everything should be published immediately, even though their colleagues admitted that some of it will need to be redacted in the national interest or that a summary could be presented. I am sure that the Government will take that idea away and consider seriously whether a summary could cover the points that have been made.
For me, this has been a useful debate. I think such a motion should be brought forward, but Members should be up front and clear that arguing about this process is not actually getting us closer to a final deal. We must not do things in this House that go against the national interest, because people will not forgive us for that. If we chuck stuff out into the papers, that may have a real impact. It is right that the Government have had a chance to explore the options. Although this has been an interesting exploration of procedure, we need to be clear about what the motion is actually about.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer for securing this important debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have called for the publication of the sectoral impact assessments.
Our economy is on the brink of the biggest change for generations. Sharing these reports is an important part of how Parliament and the Government will plan together for the big change ahead to achieve the best deal for British businesses and families. It is unclear to me why the Government are determined to keep 29 million British workers and their parliamentary representatives in the dark about the impact Brexit may have on their jobs, careers and livelihoods.
This is not just an Opposition issue; Chairs of Select Chairs have supported publication, and over 180 MPs from across the parties have backed a letter written by my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and me to the Secretary of State. This matters because the situation we face is potentially very serious. One sign is that the Bank of England believes up to 75,000 jobs could be lost in the financial services industry as a result of Brexit. Another is that in the year since the referendum, we have fallen from the top to the bottom of the G7 growth league table.
To have a proper debate about the impact of Brexit on our economy, jobs and living standards, we need to know to the fullest possible extent the effects it will have on every sector. This is not about leave or remain, but about putting country before party. It is not about taking sides, but about a nation planning together. It is about leadership, transparency, clarity and responsibility.
I will be very brief. Does my hon. Friend agree that the opposition given by Government Members is wholly confused? Of the last two speakers, one said that the reports cannot be released because that would lay open our hand in the negotiations and the other admitted that it would not because they would be provided in confidence to the Select Committee.
I will come on in a moment to talk about the confusion that I believe is holding back common sense in this debate.
We are getting the sense that there has been a change of heart by the Government. I welcome that because supporting the motion is the right thing to do. I hope that before the reports are provided to Parliament the Ministers will read them first. I hope that we will also receive confirmation today of the time by which this will happen. The list of studies was published this week, four months after they were first promised, but with 17 months to do until Brexit day, time is of the essence.
“information is withheld from the public for no good reason other than to spare the blushes of the powerful” to saying now that the Government need a “safe space” for policy development to be conducted in private. In a year, he gone from saying:
“We have more to gain than we have to lose, while the opposite is true for the EU” to telling the Lords EU Committee yesterday that Britain’s Brexit withdrawal agreement will “probably favour” the EU. The confusion at the heart of Government must not now get in the way of a nation planning together for the huge challenges to our economy that clearly lie ahead.
The Government interpreted Opposition day motions on
Order. Let me make it absolutely clear that when someone who has the Floor takes an intervention and allows someone who has not been sitting here waiting to speak to make their point, then at the end of such a busy debate, many people will not have the opportunity to speak. That is what is about to happen, and every Member of the House ought to take responsibility for not taking interventions and for keeping their remarks short. Hon. Members are preventing other hon. Members from speaking.
I congratulate Keir Starmer on his motion. The Opposition are absolutely right to table motions on Opposition days that force the Government to do things. It has been a general waste of this House’s time to have motions on motherhood and apple pie, which has been the tendency in recent years. To ensure that we have a serious, substantial matter on which to vote is a very encouraging trend and one that I hope will continue.
I have no doubt that the motion is, in all senses, binding. It is not parliamentary wallpaper. It is exercising one of our most ancient rights, to demand papers. It is interesting that in the instructions given to Select Committees they are given the right to send for people and papers, but that is the right of this House delegated to those Select Committees. It is not something inherent in Select Committees, and it is therefore something clearly that this House can, at any time, call back to itself, as, quite rightly, the Opposition have proposed today.
As to the papers themselves, I have no particular view—this is, in normal circumstances, a matter for the Government—and I would have gone along with the Government had they wished to oppose the motion. But in the event that they do not, they must publish these papers to the Brexit Select Committee in full. The motion does not allow for redaction, and a happy chat across the Dispatch Box between the shadow spokesmen and the Ministers does not reduce the right of this House to see the papers.
However, it may well be that the Select Committee, of which I happen to be a member, may decide not to publish large sections of those papers, for confidentiality reasons, but on the basis of the motion, unless a further motion is passed to amend it at some stage, that right must be with this House, not with Her Majesty’s Government.
My one criticism of the motion is that I think it a marginal discourtesy to the Select Committee not to have asked it in the first place whether it wanted this motion to be tabled, but in the grander scheme of things that is a minor complaint.
I am very grateful, because I have always campaigned—this is one reason I was so keen to leave the EU—for the rights of this House. One of the great rights of this House is to hold the Government to account and to use the procedures and facilities open to it to do that in a powerful and real way. That is something the motion does.
The Canadian example—over Afghanistan—shows that failure to meet the requirements of this House is a breach of privilege, and there is no protection for any information that the Government have received from outside sources on the grounds of confidentiality once it is required by this House. Any agreement the Government have made is superseded by the powers of this House and cannot be challenged in any court because it is a fundamental privilege of this House that it should be guided by its own rules.
I have no particular view on whether it is right or wrong to publish these papers—I would trust the Government on that—but I am pleased that the House of Commons is exercising its historic power, albeit from a 19th century precedent, and I welcome the Government’s response.
I have spoken many times in the House over the past 20 years on freedom of information. I want to focus on that today. I was nearly thrown out of the Chamber by Michael Martin for my pains some years ago in pressing for extension to freedom of information.
The Government side have focused very much on why publication of these documents would damage the interests of the UK and affect the Government’s policy making process, but the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires the Government also to consider the public interest. That is why, having submitted freedom of information requests to the Government to ask them to release a sample of these reports, I am now appealing against their refusal to issue them.
These are the grounds on which I am appealing: the release of these reports would meet all the key public interest tests, demonstrating transparent and accountable Government decision-making processes; promote public understanding of the implications of Brexit; safeguard democratic processes, which would be severely damaged if the Government pursued a path that they knew was very damaging to the UK’s interests; and secure the best use of public resources.
There is clearly great public and parliamentary interest in examining these documents, as Brexit will have a greater impact on people economically and socially, and on the UK diplomatically, than any other decision taken in the past 50 years. The Government have failed to take that into account, and I shall submit a freedom of information request to ask them to set out how they took into account the public interest test versus concerns around damaging the UK’s interests.
I am afraid that we are left with the impression that the main reason for refusing to release these reports is that they confirm that the UK will be worse off after Brexit, and that the Government are trying to hide this inconvenient truth.
The motion requires—some would say, compels—the Government to release the reports in their entirety, unredacted. My hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg just made that point. Yet a consensus appears to have emerged in this House this afternoon that it would be detrimental to our national interest to release these reports in their entirety. Keir Starmer acknowledged that in his opening remarks.
What I said in my opening was in criticism of the blanket ban. I said that the Government should consider first whether any of the material needs to be withheld and, if so, whether bits of it could be released—summaries or gists. I was criticising the Government’s approach because they had not already gone through that exercise, which they should have gone through; I was not actually talking about what the motion means.
Many Members today have made it clear that they believe publication of either a summary or a redacted version would strike the best balance between keeping the House informed and protecting our national interest. I was going to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether, if the Minister from the Dispatch Box made a commitment to publish a summary or a redacted version of these reports, the Opposition Front-Bench team would decide not to press the motion to a vote, because if passed as written, there is a danger that it would compel the Government to publish all the reports that Members on both sides of the House appear to agree would be damaging. It would be damaging for two reasons. First, contributors to those reports—companies—would have their commercial information revealed, even though the Government had given them an undertaking of confidentiality. Secondly, publication would reveal our position to our negotiating counterparts.
There is, I am afraid, a history of confidential material leaking out of Select Committees. Although the Chair of the Select Committee, Hilary Benn, said that he would seek to prevent any confidential material leaking out, that has happened on a number of occasions in the recent past. In 2012, a Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on phone hacking was leaked. In 2016, a Select Committee report on arms export controls was leaked to “Newsnight.” In 1999, a social security report was leaked to Gordon Brown’s then Parliamentary Private Secretary. Robin Cook received a leak in 1999 in relation to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and in 2013 a Public Accounts Committee report on Wonga was leaked to Wonga. So there are legitimate concerns about whether material given to a Select Committee will necessarily remain confidential.
There has been a measure of consensus in the House this afternoon that a redacted or summary version of these reports would strike the correct balance. It may be that the Minister gives an undertaking from the Dispatch Box along those lines, and it would be in the national interest if, in the event that Members in the Opposition Front-Bench team found those assurances satisfactory, they did not press their motion.
The Government’s position on this issue is hugely symbolic. Ministers’ unwillingness to furnish a Committee of this House with basic information is a symbol of a Government in trouble, seeking to avoid proper scrutiny and challenge by elected Members of this Parliament. The Government’s position on the motion is also symbolic of what is entirely wrong with this Government’s approach to Brexit, and how we find our country moving through this historic approach since the referendum.
Last year, as the Prime Minister came to power, she found herself leading a nation that was clearly divided on the subject. The Government should have been straining, and should be straining, every sinew to bring this country back together, but instead we have an unelected Prime Minister, determined to press ahead with a who-knows-what Brexit regardless of the consequences for different parts of the country and sectors of the economy. The Government are willing to do this with as little scrutiny as possible, with Ministers taking a “Whitehall knows best” approach to a process that will profoundly impact this country for decades to come. Instead of bringing the country back together, this total lack of transparency and engagement with people’s very real concerns is serving only to create further distrust and division.
Why is that important to the north-east? Well, we know that the Government have undertaken the modelling of the impacts. It has been reported that the Department for Exiting the European Union has carried out analysis that concludes that the north-east of England and Scotland will be the region and country worst affected. It stands to reason, because 60% of our exports go to the EU and we rely on millions of pounds in agricultural, structural, social and university funding.
We were told loudly and clearly last year that leaving the EU was about taking back control and that voting to leave would ensure the primacy of this sovereign Parliament. Instead, we now have a minority Government determined to obfuscate at every stage, overriding parliamentary democracy at every opportunity. This must end today.
The Health Committee will shortly begin an inquiry entitled “Brexit—medicines, medical devices and substances of human origin”. We will be considering, among other issues, how we can guarantee safe, effective and timely access to medicines and substances of human origin; the future of medical research and development; how we will co-operate and collaborate across Europe after we leave the European Union; and access to the appropriate workforce. The stakes could not be higher. The Committee does not want to damage the national interest; we want to do our job on behalf of patients, this House and the public.
We know that there are sectoral analyses of life sciences, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, medical services and social care. I did discuss with the Committee, in advance of our hearing yesterday, whether we wished to call for these papers, and we discussed many of the issues that have been raised in the House today. The Committee was unanimous in giving me the authority formally to request those papers from the Secretary of State, and I did so. Therefore, although there has been much comment this afternoon about there being a discourtesy in not raising this with the Committee, the Committee has considered it and would like the papers, on behalf of our patients, in order to allow us to do our job better.
I believe in transparency. I understand the concerns that have been raised and so would be prepared to see the documents in a private setting, if it is believed that that is the right way forward. But I and my Committee believe that we can do a better job on behalf of this House if we have access to the information. I therefore call on the Secretary of State to release it to us.
The 58 impact assessments that we know have been carried out on the instructions of the Government cover almost every imaginable area that will be affected by Brexit. Withdrawal from the European Union is arguably the most important decision that Parliament will take in over 40 years. It is only right and proper that parliamentarians should have the right to know what the impact will be on the different areas covered by the impact assessments.
Let me pick just a few areas covered by the impact assessments. On aviation, if I book a flight to Spain for
The Government say that they will not disclose the impact assessments because to do so would adversely affect their negotiations with the remaining EU countries. Do they honestly believe that the EU has not carried out its own assessments of what Brexit will mean for those 58 areas?
We, as Members of Parliament, have the right to be as well informed as possible about the effects of Brexit. The decisions that we take by
The vote to leave the European Union was hailed by those who champion Brexit as “taking back control”, yet we see the power of this House being undermined almost on a daily basis: it seems that the Government have no intention of respecting that vote. Now the Government are keeping the realities of Brexit away from the British people. This lack of transparency and erosion of democracy is an utter insult to every single person who voted in the referendum, whether they supported leave or remain. Standing up for democracy is more important than ever, and I will do precisely that.
The referendum campaign was full of fake news, and it is about time we allowed the British people to assess what they want for this country, based on the truth. That is why I will continue to call not only for the impact assessments to be released, but for a referendum on the deal. What began with democracy should not end in a Government plot shrouded in secrecy. There can be only one reason why the Secretary of State refuses to release these impact assessments: he must be hiding bad news.
The EU must be fully aware that Brexit will probably have a damaging impact on the UK. The Secretary of State is kidding himself if he thinks hiding the impact assessments will solve anything. I ask the Brexiteers of this House, as they sit in their places opposing a referendum on the deal and opposing releasing the impact assessments: “What are you hiding; what are you afraid of?” It appears to me that they are hiding the reality of Brexit, because they are afraid that the promises they sold to the public will now be revealed as fake news. I support the motion.
I am pleased to wind up a debate on an issue that is fundamental to the way in which we approach the most important negotiations our country has faced arguably since the second world war.
I am pleased that strong voices have been raised on both sides of the House in support of our motion. We have heard some noise from the Conservative Benches seeking to defend the indefensible and say that no part of the documents should be published in any circumstances—doing so apparently in contradiction of the Conservative Front Bench.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for raising a point of order, but I did give my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield prior warning. As you might have heard, Mr Speaker, there was a certain amount of confusion earlier about whether this motion is binding, and I would be grateful for your view on that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I anticipated that this might arise at the end of the debate, and I say that motions of this kind have in the past been seen as effective or binding. I will leave it there for now, but if this matter needs to be returned to at the end of the debate, no doubt it will be.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. That is helpful.
I want to repeat what our motion seeks, so there can be no misunderstanding. We have not, and we would not, advocate publishing any information that would compromise the country’s negotiating position. We are requesting that the 58 sectoral impact assessments—the economic assessments of how the Brexit process will affect the industries that account for 88% of our economy, the jobs of up to 30 million people, and the livelihoods of many more—be released to the Exiting the European Union Committee. It will then be for that Committee, as a cross-party body of the House, to agree a process for publication, and the Chair of that Committee, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, made a powerful contribution on why that publication is so important. The issue here is that an absolute, blanket ban on publishing any information from the assessments is simply not acceptable. This is about pursuing an honest debate on the future of our country. It is, as Anna Soubry said, about grown-up politics.
Members have talked about many sectors. Let me cite another: the nuclear industry. It has not been mentioned so far, but this crucial industry employs 15,000 people. Along with several colleagues, I am serving on the Nuclear Safeguards Bill Committee. Access to the nuclear industry assessment would enable us as Members of Parliament to scrutinise better, and make more informed decisions on, the legislation. That Bill is the first of many Brexit-related Bills, and it is vital that we as Members have access to the assessments when doing our jobs for the people we represent.
Too often, the Government seem to regard the House as an inconvenient hurdle to be sidestepped. We have seen that in their refusal to vote on Opposition day motions; in their power grab on delegated powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill; and in the £1 million they spent on trying to ensure that the House could not vote on triggering article 50. One of their own Members has criticised them for reducing this place to a student debating chamber. This is an opportunity for them to prove that that is not their intention. We will not have proper accountability if we are unable to assess the impact of the Government’s approach to Brexit on our economy and on the jobs and livelihoods of our constituents.
“open to hearing from the Government if they have alternative mechanisms or procedures to allow publication in an appropriate fashion.”
If those on the Opposition Front Bench hear such an appropriate alternative in the next few minutes, will they withdraw their motion?
I will cover that point in my remarks—[Interruption.] Okay, I will cover it now. Facing defeat, those on the Government Benches seem to have made some attempts to blur what is being asked for here. We have no intention of withdrawing the motion. Let me be clear: we are saying that the Government should release the documents, in full and unredacted, to the Exiting the European Union Committee and that we should trust our colleagues on that Committee to decide on a sensible and transparent process for publication more widely.
Let me return to the Brexit Secretary’s own words—he is not here today—at a different time. When he was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in December 1999, he applied a simple test on the release of information. It was
“whether it makes democracy and government work better .”
He went on to say:
“The class exemption applying to all information relating to formulation and development of Government policy, including factual information, is a ludicrous blanket exemption.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 340, c. 774 .]
Such an exemption was wrong then, and it is wrong now.
I am afraid that I will not give way.
The motion has been tabled in the interests of transparency and accountability. It has drawn support from both sides of the House, and it should command the support of the Government, not simply—as the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr Walker said in his opening remarks—to pay regard to the motion but, as Mr Rees-Mogg said, to respect it. The credibility of our democracy is at stake. If the Government do not plan to honour this motion, they should vote against it. They should choose to sit on their hands only if they intend to respect the motion in full, and I hope that they will do so.
It is a pleasure to rise at the end of what has been a genuinely fascinating debate, and I would like to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. I particularly welcome the tone and substance of what was said by Keir Starmer in his opening remarks and by the Chairman of the Select Committee Hilary Benn.
Members of the Government are, first and foremost, parliamentarians—[Interruption.] The Government recognise that Parliament has rights relating to the publication of documents, but Ministers also have a clear obligation not to disclose information when doing so would not be in the public interest. If the motion were to pass, we would need to reflect on those conflicting responsibilities. Whether people have talked about Hansard, prior practice, our responsibilities or the best interests of this country, when we all go back and reflect on Hansard and what has been said today, a surprising degree of consensus has emerged about our responsibilities.
We have not stated any intention to publish redacted documents, although I did note what my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry said about that and, in the cool light of tomorrow, we will revisit exactly what was said in Hansard. All we have said is that we will reflect on the outcome of this debate, having regard to Parliament’s rights in relation to the documents—[Interruption.] I am grateful to Opposition Members, but I am also delighted now that I have finished my—
I am grateful for the Minister’s gracious response. Will he help the House to understand something? If the Government will not vote against the motion, will they commit at the Dispatch Box that they will therefore hand over the documents? If they will not hand over the documents, they must vote against the motion. What is it to be? Come on.
I refer my right hon. Friend to what I said just moments ago.
Coming back to what my hon. Friend Chris Philp said, Hansard is of course available very quickly these days and it is the case that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras said, according to Hansard:
“As I have said, we are open to hearing from the Government if they have alternative mechanisms or procedures to allow publication in an appropriate fashion. We are not wedded to the form we have put forward.”
[Interruption.] Opposition Members say, “Disgrace,” but there can surely be no disgrace in simply reading back the Hansard record of their Front-Bench spokesman. I find that entirely bizarre.
I am on page one of my remarks with less than two minutes to go, and I therefore feel that I should apologise to Members for not getting through everything that I wish to say.
Throughout this process, it has been clear that the Government have always acted in line with the remit given to them by Parliament. The Secretary of State has been consistent in stressing the importance of parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of the Brexit process. A widely supported referendum Bill gave us the historic vote that will take us out of the European Union. We had legislation on the triggering of article 50, which preceded the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk, setting out the terms of our departure and our ambitions for the negotiation, including delivering a deep and special partnership with the European Union, which the Government are determined to deliver.
Turning to the matter at hand, it was Parliament’s vote last year that we should not put into the public domain things that could compromise our negotiating positions. We have heard time and again from both sides of the House that we should not do that, and good reasons have been given for it—
claimed to move the closure (
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The motion having been carried unanimously and the wording being that
“the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union”, can you confirm whether that means this motion is effective or binding and whether that means a failure of the Government to comply with it is, in fact, a contempt of the House?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point of order. First, as I said in response to the point of order from Mr Bradshaw a few minutes ago, motions of this kind have traditionally been regarded as binding or effective. Consistent with that established pattern, I would expect the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to present the Humble Address in the usual way.
I say what I do, as colleagues on both sides of the House and on both sides of any argument will recognise, on the strength of an understanding of advice received in relation to precedent grounded in “Erskine May”. When I am asked, as I think I was by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, about contempt or breach of privilege, what I would say is that, if anybody wishes to make an accusation of a breach of privilege or a contempt of the House, it must be done in writing to the Speaker. If I receive such a representation in writing, I will consider it and apply my best endeavours, and take advice, in reaching a view and reporting it to the House.
I have explained the position, I think, as clearly as I am able, but of course on this sensitive matter, about which I understand passions have raged this afternoon, I will take further points of order, if there are such.
I am saving up the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to waste him at an early stage.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The whole House is grateful to you for that very clear ruling. I do not know whether you noticed, but I observed defiance from the Government in the face of the ruling you have very clearly given that the motion is binding. Other than what you have said, which is very clear, are any other procedures open to Members of this House in order that this Government agree to this binding motion and come to the Dispatch Box to say that they will accept it and that these documents will be available for publication?
There is no other avenue open to the hon. Gentleman, whose indefatigability and commitment are understood in all parts of the House. Moreover, it would not be right, and I am sure he would not attempt, to read into what I have said anything more than what I have said.
Traditionally, such motions have been regarded as binding or effective. Consistent with that established pattern and tradition, I would expect the Humble Address to be presented by the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household in the usual way.
However, I would add that I think it sensible for the House to wait for the Government’s response. I do not propose to leap ahead. I will wait for the Government’s response. If I receive a representation, I will reflect upon it, and then I will revert to the House. Although the hon. Gentleman generously refers to my ruling, I have given only a very limited ruling to date. What I have given is on the record, and I do not resile from it, but I would need further to reflect on the basis of the Government reaction and any written representation which I may receive. I would then revert to the House. Obviously, I would intend to do so sooner rather than later, but I must assure him that it will not be tonight.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be helpful for you to inform the House what you feel a reasonable timeframe would be for the Government to respond?
I do not think I am obliged to do that, and I am not sure how much difference it would make. The issues are important but I do not think—I may be contradicted by senior procedural experts, to whose wisdom I should defer—that the matters are particularly complicated. One can take a view about this, one can consult “Erskine May” and one should reflect in a sober and considered fashion, but if the hon. Lady is asking me whether I envisage this being something that needs to be deliberated on over a period of several days, the answer is no.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would you assist the House in explaining how serious it is for any person, a Member of this House or someone outside it, to be in contempt of the House? Were an individual to be found in contempt of the House, that would not be a frivolous matter—it is not something that should be just ignored. Page 191 of “Erskine May” sets out the consequences for individuals found in contempt of the House and the penal jurisdiction rights of this Parliament. I would be grateful if you explained to Ministers present that this is a very serious matter.
Well, it is a serious matter, but I think that the hon. Gentleman, who has a cheeky countenance, is trying to push the Chair—I make no complaint about it—further than the Chair should be pushed. The answer, put simply, is: obviously, a contempt of the House, if there were such, would be a serious matter. But the short answer to his question, which probably will not satisfy him but has the advantage of being factually true, is that it depends on the circumstances of the case, and the ultimate arbiter of the seriousness of a contempt is the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the debate, a number of Members seemed to be in favour of publishing redacted or summary versions of these papers, but of course that was not in the motion and nor was the motion amended. Were a new motion to be put requiring the Government to publish summary or redacted versions, would that then replace the motion just passed?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I say to him this: the House can always consider new motions if new motions are tabled in an orderly way on a specific day and the House debates them and chooses to vote upon them. He is fast becoming interested parliamentary procedure, and I respect that. He may think it useful to him to reflect on the wise words of a distinguished representative of his own party, well known to Mr Clarke. I refer of course to the late Lord Whitelaw, who was known to observe on one occasion, “On the whole, I think it better to cross bridges only when I come to them.”
“Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return.”
That is the basis of the motion we have debated today. Can you just underline how important it is that we police that power? It is the power by which Select Committees are able to ask for any papers from anybody. It is the power by which Select Committees or the House are able to require other people to appear as witnesses. If we do not police this power, we end up completely disenfranchising this Parliament; we make ourselves utterly impotent. “Erskine May” also makes it absolutely clear that things that include contempts are
“actions which…obstruct or impede”— the Commons—
“in the performance of its functions, or are offences against its authority or dignity, such as disobedience to its legitimate commands”.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that it is very important that the House polices the enforcement of its own powers. That, I think, is an observation so clear as really to brook no contradiction. The power to which Members have referred is a power that has of course been deployed by both sides of the House today: as the Order Paper testifies, the power was deployed on another matter by the Government; in this case, the Opposition have sought to deploy that power and a motion to that effect has just been passed.
On the question of the importance of the House guarding and overseeing the operation of its own powers, the hon. Gentleman is correct: it is very important that the House does so. I say that without prejudice to a ruling on privilege or contempt in any particular case.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following on from the point of order raised by Dr Wollaston, I seek your clarification on the timing of taking forward the requirements in the motion that has just been passed. I ask in the light of the fact that the list of sectors that was published was published four months after it was promised. Bearing in mind the urgency of the situation and there being only 17 months till Brexit day, can you clarify, Mr Speaker, whether it could be interpreted as contempt if there was such an extended delay as to make the information far less useful?
Were that proposition put to me as part of a representation by anybody alleging a contempt, I would consider that matter most carefully. I would certainly go so far as to say that it would be a most material consideration. I understand the House’s desire for clarity on this matter, one way or the other. The question of time, in both the context of the decision taken by the House tonight and the wider context of public policy, is an important question, and yes, it does form part of the equation that the Chair would have to address.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, and following on from that raised by the Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Wollaston, the Leader of the House said in the House last week that when the House passes Opposition motions unanimously, there will be a 12-week gap before Ministers have to respond. Can you confirm, Sir, that because the motion just passed was a substantive motion, the option to kick the can down the road for another three months does not apply and the Government should have to come to the House with a response forthwith?
The Leader of the House said what she did in response to representations that were made by Members on both sides of the House in the specific context of earlier Opposition day debates, the motions for which were not binding. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but the Leader of the House, in a perfectly procedurally legitimate fashion, about which people can have different political opinions, offered to the House an indication of the intended Government handling of situations of the kind that occurred in recent weeks. Today’s debate was on a different type of motion, and therefore I would go so far as to say that I think it wrong to conflate tonight’s motion, with the instruction that it contains, with the Leader of the House’s response to a different set of circumstances a week or so ago. The situations are different and the response offered then should not necessarily be thought to apply to the situation now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I quite enjoy voting in this place, but it was our determination not to do so. As I was listening to the debate—you were not in your Chair at the time, but a deputy of yours was—I thought the Government responded to this point and said that they would not choose to ignore this binding motion. Some of these points of order seem to be asking whether or not this House of Commons is in fact a court of law, which it is not. Any Government, in choosing not to vote against a motion, therefore accedes to the idea that it is bound by the process and will respond in due course. Given that basis and the earlier response, I must say, Mr Speaker, that I think your earlier pronouncement was an end to the matter, as far as I can see, because it is quite clear that the Government have to respond.
Well, I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The Government do have to respond. He is quite right that I was not in the Chair, though of course the Chair is seamless—there was a distinguished occupant of the Chair at the time—and I have received advice on what took place when I was not in the Chair. I think, from an earlier point of order, there was some exchange about what constituted, and what did not constitute, ignoring a motion. Suffice it to say that enough has been said tonight. Points of order have been raised. I think that I have given a clear indication of what the general practice has been and what I would do if I were approached in writing, and it is right and proper, as the right hon. Gentleman implies, that we leave it there for tonight.
But who can refuse Mr Skinner? Of course I will hear his point of order.
It is not for me to make any such assertion. I have done my bit in allowing the hon. Gentleman to indulge his appetite and I should leave it there. I honestly think that I have said enough for tonight. Members know that what I have said so far is clear, at least in terms of the intended sequence of events. I thank the hon. Gentleman and note that he made his point with a smile.